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Review: Liam Neeson portrays avenging grandpa in formulaic ‘Blacklight’

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 17, 2022

Gabriella Sengos and Liam Neeson in “Blacklight.”  (Ben King/Open Road Films)
Gabriella Sengos and Liam Neeson in “Blacklight.” (Ben King/Open Road Films)
By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

Every several months or so, like clockwork, it seems there’s another Liam Neeson action flick. Still going strong at 69, the actor is like a force of nature that even a pandemic can’t slow down. See “Honest Thief,” “The Marksman” and “The Ice Road,” all examples of a certain formula – the Everyman under duress (with a certain set of skills), first introduced with “Taken” – and all released over the past year and a half.

Like an iPhone update, each of these new roles basically looks the same as the previous one but with a few slightly different identifying features: a damaged veteran-turned-safecracker here, a damaged veteran-turned-rancher there. In “The Ice Road,” it’s the brother of Neeson’s character, a truck driver, who’s the damaged veteran. But you get the point.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present “Blacklight,” in which Neeson plays – wait for it – a damaged veteran-turned-operative who gets fed up working as an off-the-books fixer for the FBI when he learns that it has been assassinating American citizens. A reprise of the partnership between Neeson and “Ozark” co-creator Mark Williams, who directed “Thief,” produced “Marksman” and returns to the director’s chair here, “Blacklight” opens on a disturbing prologue.

A liberal Latina politician (Mel Jarnson) is killed in a hit-and-run – immediately followed by a scene in which Neeson’s Travis Block is shown rescuing an undercover FBI agent from a cabal of rural racists who have discovered that they’ve been infiltrated by the feds and aren’t happy about it. The theme of political divisiveness adds a fresh if unsettling topical veneer to a very familiar setup.

Travis’ next assignment is to bring in agent Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith), a whistleblower who claims to know something embarrassing about that hit-and-run and who may or may not be unhinged. This cleanup assignment is on the orders of FBI director Gabe Robinson, an old Vietnam War buddy of Travis’ who, as portrayed by Aidan Quinn, comes across like J. Edgar Hoover on steroids.

He is a rogue lawman waging his own private war on those he perceives to be enemies of the people. “Nowadays, the country is ruled by gotcha moments on Twitter,” Gabe laments. He isn’t entirely wrong. All this, Travis learns, mainly from the reporter Dusty has been trying to contact (Emmy Raver-Lampman).

But after Gabe goes after Travis’ daughter (Clare van der Boom) and granddaughter (Gabriella Sengos), hoping to use them as bargaining chips when Travis starts poking his nose where it doesn’t belong, everything suddenly becomes personal. Of course it becomes personal. Out come the guns and the aforementioned “special skills,” along with a pair of G-men goons commissioned by Gabe to keep his old friend quiet.

For fans of Neeson as action hero, “Blacklight” may be something of a disappointment, at least measuring it against the yardstick of previous thrillers in this particular branch of the actor’s body of work. The film takes a strangely long time winding up Travis, and, by the time it does, there isn’t much road left for him to go gunning down in his all-black muscle car with hood scoop.

But that being said, it’s always a pleasure to see Neeson do his thing. Even if it’s in the guise of a guerrilla warrior now more commonly known as “Grandpa.”

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