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Another season, another “Liam Neeson Has Skills” movie. Some of the variants of his popular “Taken” movies (the last one, “Taken 3,” was all the way back in 2014, how times flies) have been reasonably clever and even cinematically worthwhile on a surprising level (see for instance 2019’s “Cold Pursuit”). Mark Williams' “Blacklight,” alas, is not among them.
The movie opens with a scene of a young, charismatic brunette female roiling the working class at a D.C. rally. They carry signs bearing her name, Sofia Flores. (The actor playing her is Mal Jarnson.) Given the talk she’s talking here, she’s obviously based on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In the crowd is a wide-eyed guy fixing his baby blues on her adoringly, apparently her boyfriend, played by Taylor John Smith (in this scene and others looking more like a digital animation than a live person for some reason). So far so familiar. But later that night after the rally, a shady town car driver fakes a jammed passenger-side door, obliging Sofia to exit the car driver’s side, and on the street she’s efficiently plowed down by an SUV. Whose driver shares a meaningful glance with the town car driver.
One ought not have to invoke former Congresswoman Gabbie Giffords to argue why this kind of “torn from the headlines” (or whatever it is) scenario opportunism is gross. It casts a pall over the rest of the movie, which wouldn’t have much going for it anyway even without this alpha-male posturing.
Neeson plays Travis Block (writer Nick May musta read a screenwriting manual stating that giving your violent hero Travis Bickle’s initials is a good luck charm of sorts) an undercover even by undercover standards FBI guy who specializes in getting regular undercover agents out of jams. We first see him speeding to a DC-adjacent redneck-white-supremacist conclave to rescue an in-too-deep operative. He achieves this through legerdemain and propane and a flare. In the office of his buddy, FBI Director Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn, channeling Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlet Gone Bad) tells Travis—who is also his best friend, of course—“I appreciate you for making it happen.”
But the thing Travis most wants to make happen at this late stage in life is quality time with his granddaughter, at which is actual daughter balks. Travis’ paranoia isn’t good for the tot, she complains, just as the tot is opening grandpa’s birthday gift: a flashlight with a built-in taser doo-hickey. In the meantime, Smith’s character turns out to be named Dusty and it turns out that he, too is an undercover agent. One who’s about to spill to a crusading journalist (Emmy Raver-Lampman) about his—and the bureau’s—part in the assassination of Flores.
Block doesn’t buy it at first—decades on the job and he still believes the establishment to be essentially thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Soon, of course, the scales fall from his eyes. And eventually he must confront the man who etcetera etcetera.
The action set pieces are perfunctory. I suppose it’s commendable that they don’t rise, or fall, to the level of chaos cinema but by the same token they’re so lifeless you might find yourself wishing them to. And the script is, gross opportunism aside, dismally threadbare. Robinson’s rationales for his illegal and evil actions don’t even exist; they just are. You know, the villainous forces in ‘70s paranoia classics like “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View” at least had an ethos, Donnie.
Now playing in theaters.
Liam Neeson as Travis Block
Emmy Raver-Lampman as Mira Jones
Taylor John Smith as Dusty Crane
Aidan Quinn as Gabriel Robinson
Tim Draxl as Drew Hawthorne
Claire van der Boom as Amanda Block