Principal Cast : Liam Neeson, Kate Walsh, Jai Courtney, Jeffrey Donovan, Anthony Ramos, Robert Patrick, Jasmine Cephas Jones.
Synopsis: Wanting to lead an honest life, a notorious bank robber turns himself in, only to be double-crossed by two ruthless FBI agents.
Ever since he reinvented himself a semi-serious action star with Taken, Liam Neeson’s career has taken him on a pathway of indeterminate quality and often inconsequential film choices. We all know how the Taken franchise tore its own balls off with subsequent sequels, and Neeson’s relatively dire appearances in content like Unknown, Battleship, Non-stop, Run All Night and The Commuter continue to keep the paychecks coming in when he’s not picking up solid reviews for the likes of Silence and Cold Pursuit. Honest Thief represents the nadir of Neeson’s post-Taken action career, the veteran screen growler aiming for repudiation against his previous efforts, and with director Mark Williams at the helm the film is an entirely underwhelming experience.
Neeson plays Tom Dolan, who spent the better part of his post-military retirement robbing banks, earning him the nickname “the in-and-out bandit”, although he was never caught. After meeting aspiring psychologist and storage facility manager Annie Wilkins (Kate Walsh), Tom goes straight, although his past catches up with him when he attempts to buy a house and settle down with her. Having stolen around $9m over the years, Tom has never spent it, and contacts the FBI to return it and hand himself in, hoping to cleanse his guilt. Initially suspicious of Tom not being genuine, FBA Agents Baker (Robert Patrick) and Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan) kick the case down to their subordinates, Agents Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos), who, upon discovering that Tom is telling the truth, decide to keep some of the money for themselves. This decision has deadly consequences for all.
Offering scant thrills and threadbare intrigue, Honest Thief is Liam Neeson at his gravelly, softly masculine best in a role largely bereft of charisma. It doesn’t matter how often he tries to make them better, these kinds of films are simply vehicles for Neeson to kick ass and take names, spouting off a few cool trailer-worthy lines of dialogue as he goes. As he did with almost all his action films since Taken, Neeson has endeavoured to find some kind of humanity with each of the roles, to make him less superheroic and more flawed, more prone to vulnerability, which is to be commended despite his distinct lack of success at doing so. He does so again here, with Honest Thief presenting Neeson as some weary, feeling-guilty former bomb disposal expert for the US Marines, which gives him an out for being able to wield a weapon as well as he does and to come up with a solid bait-and-switch for his on-screen nemesis, whilst also keeping us engaged with his mortality due to his age.
The writing here (the screenplay is credited to both the director and Steve Allrich) is formulaic, simplistic and rote, a pastiche of action films past that ought to work but doesn’t, mainly due to the fact that it’s almost entirely possible for the viewer to figure out what’s going to happen before it actually does. Neeson barely has time to get out of first gear wooing Kate Walsh than he’s drawn into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with Jai Courtney’s corrupt and arrogant FBI agent character, Nivens, the prime motivator for everything in the story to go wrong, and aside from several laughably asinine phone calls between the pair there’s barely any reason here for us to care. Walsh’s character is an empty vessel for Neeson to moon over, Jai Courtney vacillates between semi-serious and outright teeth-gnashing camp as a screen villain, and Jeffrey Donovan’s recently divorced (why?) Agent Meyers could almost have been packaged in a carboard factory for all he musters in terms of interest. Sadly, the only character we really care about here is Anthony Ramos’ guilt-ridden Agent Hall, who initially goes along with Nivens’ plan to steal the money before his better angels speak up. If you’re relying on your second-string characters to save the day when there’s no action, you’re doomed to fail.
And the action? Well, it’s haphazard at best, a scattered sense of frenzy and desperation as bullets and fists and cars fly between Neeson’s cheesy, mawkish line delivery and Courtney’s snarling lizard-like Nivens. Fight sequences feel like schoolyard playground slaparounds, car chases have no momentum whatsoever, and the gunplay here is crisply indecipherable. Neeson gamely ambles through the film like he’s mortally wounded just standing there, and the younger players offer credible effort, but the risible script and inconveniently tepid action choreography leave a lot to be desired.
There’s a fair chance that if I ever had Liam Neeson on the other end of the phone and he growled “I’m coming for you” in a non-sexual way I’d drop the phone and bolt in to some far flung jungle and never return. He’s got screen presence, that’s for sure. Honest Thief isn’t the film that line delivery deserves, and neither we nor he really come away from this neutered affair with any feeling of satisfaction. I enjoyed Kate Walsh’s work, despite limited opportunity to give us more, and the heartstring-tugging romance between she and Neeson was kinda sweet if a touch too saccharine for this movie. As an action movie, however, Honest Thief should have been left in the safe forever.