The Comforting Certainties of a Big Old Man from Ballymena
A few weeks in, and something of the shape of the revised cinema ecology is becoming clear: in the near-total absence of major releases, mid- and low-budget movies are having something of a moment in the sun, so things aren't as bad as they could have been, always assuming you like modest genre movies and slightly quirkier films. On the other hand, the reduced number of films out there means that the trailers have become somewhat more heterogenous than has traditionally been the case: a year ago, if I'd seen three trailers for horror movies, one for a quality weepy, and one for a big-budget literary mystery, all in front of the same film, I would have been left scratching my head.
As it turns out, none of these were in the same genre as the film I'd turned up to see, for it seems that not even the biggest global crisis in half a century can impact on the metronomic regularity with which the world is treated to Liam Neeson-starring thrillers. Honest Thief has been produced, written and directed by one Mark Williams, a curiously obscure (or possibly reclusive) individual whose most surprising credit, to me at least, is as a producer on the hospital soap opera Casualty. From a car park in Bristol to the set of a bus pass badass movie in only fifteen years: career trajectories can be funny old things sometimes.
The movie doesn't hang about and gets under way with pleasing economy, as it is very quickly established that Liam Neeson is playing a feller called Tom, who is a (naturally) highly proficient ex-marine explosives expert who has turned his hand to bank robbery with considerable success. The slickness and professionalism of his activities has led the media to dub him 'the In-and-Out Bandit'; normally I would indulge in some low humour about this rather dubious nickname, but the film appeared to anticipate this and has a running gag with Neeson grumbling about the dodgy handle he's been saddled with.
Next up we have Neeson enjoying a cute-meet with self-storage facility manager Annie, played by Kate Walsh: cue a quick 'One Year Later' caption and the happy couple are considering buying a house together (viewing properties is very easy for them, as Neeson just breaks in and has a look around without needing to check with the estate agent). However, being the decent, upstanding crook that he is, Neeson's conscience just won't let him settle down and enjoy his new life until he's squared things with the authorities.
So he rings up senior FBI agent Robert Patrick (you know, off the top of my head, I can't think of a single occasion where Robert Patrick doesn't play either a cop, a fake cop or an FBI agent, other than Die Hard 2) and tries to make a deal: he's prepared to give all the money back and say he's sorry, on condition he only goes to prison for a little while and can still be visited by his lady friend (as he calls her, rather quaintly). Patrick assumes he's a crank and palms the job off onto junior agents played by Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos, who are quite startled when Neeson turns out to be on the level and reveals to them where he has hidden all the money.
However, here things take a bit of a turn, as Courtney decides he quite likes the idea of keeping the cash and splitting it with Ramos, and talks his partner into going along with this plan. But what's to be done about Neeson in this scenario? Well, one thing leads to another and sure enough Neeson soon finds himself the target of a full-scale manhunt by the authorities, wanted for a murder the corrupt agents have framed him for...
This almost inevitably leads to the moment where a very cross Neeson gets on the phone to his persecutors and essentially growls 'I'm coming for you!' It's almost a convention of the Liam Neeson action movie that this happens, and it features prominently in the trailer. This may have been a mistake, as – let's face it – the reputation of the Liam Neeson-starring action movie is not exactly stellar; as noted, these things seem to roll off a production line, with mostly only cosmetic differences between one and the next.
Honest Thief, however, is a slight cut above. This is still the kind of movie where one character can wrestle another out of a second-floor window and they both walk away with only minor cuts and bruising, or the duo can repeatedly empty their guns at each other from a distance of about twelve feet and only inflict a minor flesh wound, but it's neatly plotted for the most part, with much more of an emphasis on characterisation than violence.
All right, there is a bit of an issue which the film has to negotiate in order to function – why does a moral, upstanding man of integrity like Liam Neeson rob banks in the first place? And why is he so determined to give the money back all of a sudden? Well, they kind of fudge the first point: it's a combination of doing it for the fun of it, and a vague sense of moral outrage produced by corruption in big business (or something). As far as giving the money back – well, there's a lot of waffle about Neeson not wanting to have to keep secrets from Walsh, and so on, but basically it's because the film is predicated on his being determined to do so.
Once you accept these premises, the film is an entertaining and satisfying thriller, with enough quirky touches to lift it up a notch or two. Neeson's basically playing the same character as always, but he does it pretty well, and there's a very good performance by Jai Courtney, who initially seems like just a bit of a loose cannon before slowly being revealed to be a borderline psychopath.
Let's keep things in perspective: while this is a superior Liam Neeson action movie, it's still a Liam Neeson action movie, not really a film of substance, depth, or scope (there are only about seven speaking parts in the whole thing). However, in a world where more substantial movies have temporarily disappeared, it's a reasonably safe bet for an undemanding couple of hours of entertainment.