Remember when Liam Neeson was going to retire from making action movies? Whatever happened to that? I’m not telling the guy what to do or anything. He’s one of the most bankable actors in the world and can credibly kick ass in just about anything. But if he had retired then we wouldn’t have to deal with Blacklight, a tired government conspiracy thriller that tacks on Neeson-style action like an afterthought.
Stop me if you’ve heard this: Neeson plays a mysterious government agent with a particular set of skills who uncovers a conspiracy that only he can stop by beating people up. Oh, and his family gets “taken.” Neeson is Travis Block, which is a pretty cool name for a guy whose job is to pull deep cover agents out of harm’s way. We’re introduced to this admittedly kinda-cool gig when he extracts a woman who had gotten in too deep with a white militia group. After what looks like it’s going to be an awesome Neeson vs. KKK fight, he sorta just rolls up in his Dodge Charger, makes something go boom, and drives her home.
The story takes off with the assassination of a charismatic young politico in the vein of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Her rallies pushing for universal healthcare were just too much, necessitating a vast government conspiracy to knock her off. But it soon becomes clear that she’s not the only innocent being targeted by the FBI. When a desperate agent (Taylor John Smith) tries to come clean about what he knows, he becomes a target of them, as well, drawing in an intrepid young journalist (Emmy Raver-Lampman) who just wants a big story to shut up her douchebag male colleague.
What’s interesting about Block that Blacklight could’ve made better use of is that he’s actually pretty clueless for most of the movie. He’s the strong, silent guy who does the dirty jobs and doesn’t ask questions. When his FBI boss and former Vietnam vet pal (Aidan Quinn wants to quiet this rogue agent, Block goes right along with it. Block would rather find a way back into the life of his estranged daughter (Claire van der Boom) and granddaughter than think too hard about all of the terrible things he’s done. He might not want to question whether he’s truly the good guy, but his family definitely have doubts. He’s the paranoid type who shows up and gets his grandkid a gift wrapped taser for her birthday; he’s the granddad who shows up unannounced and installs security cameras around the house.
Block’s awkwardness around his family is mostly played for laughs, adding an odd tinge to what is otherwise meant to be a pretty serious film about blind loyalty and the powerful’s ability to shut down dissenters. But there’s no drama to any of it. Director Mark Williams, who worked with Neeson on the ho-hum Honest Thief, struggles to give us a reason to care about the FBI’s murderous plot or Block’s crisis of conscience. A bit part of the problem is the screenplay which does nobody any favors and makes Block look like a naive idiot. It’s not a good look for Neeson to play someone so blind, and he seems uncomfortable when forced to do it. We’re not talking about Bruce Willis levels of disinterest, but Neeson is clearly more at home when in the middle of gunfights or a nifty garbage truck chase. They, however, don’t feel like they are at-home in this movie, and instead are like they were added to give Neeson fans something to cheer for. Blacklight has Neeson doing what he can easily do in his sleep, and sadly it never gives him a reason to wake up.
Blacklight opens in theaters on February 11th.