Liam Neeson has made a name for himself in smaller action flicks. The actor fills the screen in his films with a relentless scowl; experience his currency. In his latest action-thriller, Blacklight, Neeson teams up with writer-director Mark Williams once again.
As Travis Block, Neeson is, quite literally a Swiss army knife, trying to make amends with his daughter, Amanda (Claire van der Boom) and granddaughter, Natalie (Gabriella Sengos) while at the same time, Block is a shadowy FBI agent, a cleaner who gets deep-cover agents out of their assignments and into protective custody.
Blacklight’s story mirrors current times effectively: a promising candidate is mowed down for her threatening position within the first few minutes. Williams, who worked with Neeson on Honest Thief and co-wrote last year’s wonderful Copshop, adapts a story from Nick May and Brandon Reavis. We’re taken (zero puns intended, I assure you, but it was too easy!) on a journey into a dangerous world where the powerful seek to destroy those who would stand in the way of gaining more power.
Travis Block will be a familiar character to audiences, and the story even more so. Those facts don’t disadvantage Neeson’s performance, but they perhaps slow him down. The original script treatment for Blacklight comes from writer Nick May who co-wrote the story and the screenplay entitled “Under Cover of Darkness.” If Blacklight feels a bit like a story that would have attracted the likes of Alan J. Pakula, you wouldn’t be wrong.
The challenge with the story is that it is modernized and attuned to today’s audiences, much like the “Ripped From the Headlines” stories that “Law & Order” ran so often. Yes, there is human interest in why Travis Block is committed to his job, rooted in para-militaristic, jingoistic reactions. The level of self-control exerted by Block is impressive, an ode to Neeson’s understanding of the material and Williams’ direction.
However, Block’s being a Swiss army knife is also counterproductive to the character. The story involves Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman), who works for an internet rag. Jones usually digs salacious information on situations or people, generating massive clicks. Jones angles toward a critical subject in what could be a “make or break” story. There appears to be zero passion for getting the facts right, not that they are precisely forthcoming. The story turns the threat toward her, though indirectly, namely because of the actions of others.
Williams slowly rolls out the details of a rogue FBI program silencing those who stand in the way of progress with Jones smack dab in the middle of the struggle. Even as an anti-hero, Block, an honest man, inevitably wants the truth to set him free.
Block’s story tries to contain itself too neatly, fumbling in the third act as Blacklight tries too hard to blend the covert operations prevalent in the past with the world of today. Opposite Block, an apt name for a character if I’ve ever heard one, is Aiden Quinn’s Gabriel Robinson; its secrets are too quickly given up.
In the 70s and the 80s, the news reporter was a powerful force for the government. The push for information for today’s generation is to “ask questions later,” only later might not necessarily come.
Neeson is solid as Travis Block; however, Blacklight feels too breezy for its good. The characters seem to contemplate far more than taking action, posing unanswered questions. The action is sleek; the rest remains eerily familiar.