Going into any of Liam Neeson’s middle-aged-man-is-tested action movies — there are now enough of them to constitute their own mini genre within his career — you may find yourself asking a few pre-viewing questions: What’s his profession, and which side of the law is it on? Does he have a wife and/or child, and has said love interest been abducted and/or killed? Is Liam trapped somewhere — like, say, on a plane or a train? Are there wolves? (Please, God, let there be wolves.) Just what is his particular set of skills this time out, and how will he threaten to use them on whoever is making his life hell?
We like to think we provide a public service here, so let’s answer these queries as they pertain to Neeson’s latest run-jump-revenge outing, Honest Thief. In regards to his job, see title: The star with the purring Irish baritone plays Tom Carter, a notorious bank robber known, per the media, as “the In & Out Bandit.” (He hates the name, for what it’s worth. “It sounds so low-rent,” Carter gripes. “I’m very precise in my work.”) For those who dig numbers, he’s hit 12 banks in seven states over eight years, and is sitting on a $9 million haul. He doesn’t have a wife or a child, but he does have a girlfriend named Annie (Kate Walsh) — they met cute at the Boston storage facility which she manages, and where he’s stashing the loot. An ex-Marine, Carter’s skills include safecracking, handling explosives, knowing how to get out of any sticky situation, and glowering. His threat — “I’m comin’ for you …” — is, let’s say, more than a little lacking. Regrettably, not a single wolf shows up, unless you count Jai Courtney’s scenery-chewy, semi-lupine performance as a corrupt fed. (We do not.) And the only thing our man is stuck in is, alas, a movie that really doesn’t know how to take advantage of Neeson’s considerable screen presence and talents.
Now that Carter’s found true love and a house in the tonier suburbs of Beantown to settle down in, he’s ready to put his criminal past in the rearview mirror. In his mind, that means turning himself in to the FBI and atoning for his crimes; if this honest thief returns the money and gets a reduced sentence, he can officially start fresh in a few years. The two FBI veterans who take his confession — the frick-and-frack team of Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan) and Baker (Robert Patrick) — assume he’s another crank-caller claiming to be the infamous criminal. They offload an initial interview to two younger counterparts, Agent Hall (Anthony Ramos) and Agent Nivens (Courtney). Carter says the duo can find evidence of guilt in his storage unit. Coming across one-third of the $9 million — the robber has hidden the rest away as insurance — Nivens decides that they should steal it and kill the suspect. Guns get pulled, people jump out of windows, and soon, Carter and Annie are on the run. Luckily, he has a few tricks up his sleeves.
Neeson could do this kind of thing in his sleep. To his credit, he doesn’t — you can see him trying his best to add depth to this career criminal, gamely attempting to sell the character’s backstory (a war he never chose, a widower dad dealing with depression, the weariness of a nation underwriting his stealing), straining to keep this threadbare plot together through sheer Herculean effort. Like Carter, the Oscar-nominated actor is a consummate professional. His scenes with Walsh, a not-so-secret-weapon who’s been enlisted to enliven a dozen or so TV shows, suggest a genuine romantic crackle that never gets the attention or space it deserves. And unlike his previous action films and pulpy crime flicks, there’s neither enough grade-A live-wire dynamism nor giddy, guilty-pleasure cheesiness (seriously, have you seen Non-Stop?!) to make this movie actually move. It’s a safecracker-versus-corrupt-feds thriller that’s just north of somnambulistic.
Which is a little odd, given that director and co-writer Mark Williams knows how to do the couple-under-pressure thing — he co-created Ozark, a show that, if nothing else, knows how to ratchet up tension. There’s very little of that quality in Honest Thief, unless you count wondering if Donovan’s Bah-stun accent is going to slip or whether his character’s business with an omnipresent dog is going to have some sort of payoff. (If you count seeing this always-clutch supporting player earnestly asking a tiny canine, “Do you have to go make pee-pee’s or poopies, do you?” in a falsetto, then the answer is yes. Apologies if that constitutes a spoiler.)
No one emerges the worse for wear out of this so-so exercise in crime and punishment and explosions, least of all Neeson — although given this is, mind-bogglingly, a theaters-only release, we can’t guarantee that applies to audiences as well. It’s just that, in a moment when we could really use the sight of a gentleman with a particular set of skills tearing no-goodniks apart, we needed something a lot stronger, savvier, and more fun than this. Honestly.