‘Blacklight’ proves that Liam Neeson is the new Charles Bronson

Reflecting on two action stars from different eras

Before watching “Blacklight,” I speculated that Liam Neeson is the present-day equivalent of Charles Bronson; now my speculations are confirmed. Charles Bronson was a prominent actor in the 1960’s and 70’s, but it was his 1974 film, “Death Wish” which cemented him as an action star changing his career, exactly what Neeson’s 2009 film, “Taken” did for him. Every action film Bronson did afterward was so tonally similar to “Death Wish” it either was a sequel or may as well have been, again similar to Neeson’s actioners.  

While I haven’t seen much of Bronson’s output, I can speculate from what I’ve read in Paul Talbot’s brilliant biography “Bronson’s Loose Again,” there are more than a few ethical reasons his actioners aren’t broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. What began with “Death Wish,” a well-conveyed, mean-spirited study of a broken man’s turn to vigilantism led to two sequels (in a row) ending with him executing the antagonist with a rocket launcher. I don’t want Neeson’s career turning to this level of schlock.

In “Blacklight,” Neeson plays Travis Block, an obsessive-compulsive secret agent whose job is to rescue fellow agents whose covers are threatened. When his friend, Dusty Crane intends to reveal corrupt measures their agency is taking, Block tries to dissuade him only to witness Crane being murdered under his director Robinson’s orders. In a crisis of purpose, Block confronts Robinson only for his family to be threatened, leading him to expose Robinson’s corruption.

Aesthetically the film is great. The suspense is effective especially in a scene where two evil agents pursue and murder an unfortunate reporter for publishing the wrong news at the wrong time. The cast works brilliantly, especially Neeson who gives an impassioned performance. The biggest weakness is a feeble screenplay.

According to IMDB trivia, the screenplay is written by Nick May, former U.S. Department of Justice attorney during the Obama administration. It seems clear who booted him out, thereby becoming incorporated into the film’s villain played by Aidan Quinn in his first collaboration with Neeson since 2011’s “Unknown” (a film so innovative it actually became its title). The opening scene details Block rescuing an undercover agent from a trailer-park of racist, backwoods hillbillies, followed by Robinson’s introductory monologue about how fear-mongering helps elections, emphasizing the film’s level of subtlety; and that’s not counting the pre-title sequence where a progressive speaker is killed for wanting nationwide free healthcare.

This soil has been tilled far too long for anything to grow. Neeson should keep acting but should also choose his roles more carefully.

If employed correctly, infusing contemporary politics in a film’s plot can make a good movie, like “The Manchurian Candidate.” But the usage here is so ham-fisted it ruined my enjoyment. Block had been employed by Robinson 20 years earlier, bringing new meaning to the term “good enough for government work” considering Neeson is nearly seventy thus making this hiring at age fifty. 

Block’s OCD is portrayed as a haywire condition having him wired like a ticking time-bomb, though he accomplishes enough as he would if his character were normally sound and just gotten angry. It’s strange that “Death on the Nile,” a film in which the protagonist’s OCD provides a running joke, handles the subject matter more respectfully than this.

This soil has been tilled far too long for anything to grow. Neeson should keep acting but should also choose his roles more carefully. If IMDB is correct, he’s currently working on a Philip Marlowe film and while I’m cautiously excited for it (though I think Titus Welliver or David Harbour would be much better for the role), I hope it pulls Neeson out of this action schlock and revitalizes his career.

This is the equivalent of Bronson’s laughable “Assassination” (1987) if it took itself seriously. I’m certain Neeson, like Bronson, enjoys being the best part of a poor movie. But he’s better than that and deep down I can’t help thinking a line his character says in this films midpoint, “In hindsight, I probably made a poor career choice,” is something he may think when he sees “Blacklight” on his resume.

Review: 2/5

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