Review: Liam Neeson’s Latest, Blacklight Takes Too Many Shortcuts, Short-Changing Audiences

If the people who made the new political thriller Blacklight had any guts, the story would have been told from the perspective of journalist Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman, The Umbrella Academy), who slowly uncovers a web of intrigue and possibly a secret branch of the FBI targeting and murdering innocent civilians in the name of national security. At a certain point, that branch starts killing people in order to keep its own existence a secret once the threat of it being exposed by Jones becomes a very real possibility.

But the character of Jones is a member of the “biased” media and played by a woman of color, so the film instead is told from the perspective of Travis Block (Liam Neeson), a freelance government fixer who brings in any deep-cover FBI agent who has lost their way mentally. Block isn’t officially an agent himself, but he works directly for FBI Director Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn), and is sent out to work in the shadows to retrieve these agents, often when they are in danger of being exposed. The film opens with one such extraction of an agent from under the noses of a white supremacist group, and there are explosions and car stunts galore.

In order the justify telling this story from Block’s perspective, they give him more of a backstory than your average action hero might get. He has a strained relationship with his grown daughter Amanda (Claire van der Boom), who grew up paranoid of every conceivable threat thanks to her overprotective father. Amanda often feels safer not having her father around her and her young daughter Natalie (Gabriella Sengos), whom Block adores even as he still has her checking for all available exits in every room she enters. In order to prove he can be a reliable and stable force in his family’s life, he begins the uneasy process of exiting his work for the FBI, a move that doesn’t sit well with the agency director. Still, he’s willing to let Block go if he completes one final mission: retrieving agent Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith), whose only crime seems to be questioning the people he’s working for because he’s been tasked with killing innocent people and is going to the press (namely, Jones) to tell his story.

Since Block doesn’t actually kill people, he’s completely unaware of this secret branch, known as Operation Unity, so even he has a difficult time buying his story. But when he questions Director Robinson about it, he’s told that it’s none of his business and has nothing to do with his work, forcing Block to question the very nature of his own work and the people he works for. His history with Robinson is tangled and complicated, so it’s not easy for him to walk away cold, but he begins to suspect that his life and the life of his family may be in danger, and thus begins a collection of gun battles, chases, missing persons, and exposing what is a essentially a criminal division of the U.S. government.

Let’s be honest, Blacklight is your standard-issue Liam Neeson offering, with just enough backstory to justify every act of violence he commits, but without enough to get us really interested or involved in the outcome. Director/co-writer Mark Williams (Honest Thief) keeps things moving, sometimes a bit too quickly, skimming over details and huge sections of the story, seemingly in the name of shortening the movie to an easily digestible running time. There’s an entire section of the film devoted to Block finding his missing daughter and granddaughter that is resolved so quickly that I’m still not sure exactly where they went or how they were found. And the way the film ties up its loose ends with both Robinson and the reporter almost feels like an afterthought, and they shouldn’t in order to feel even remotely satisfying. I mostly enjoy the cottage industry that Neeson has built around this singular on-screen personality that began with Taken, but that doesn’t mean he should get used to short-changing audiences who still support him like he does here. I guess I’ll just have to wait a few more months for the next one.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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