In "Honest Thief," Liam Neeson portrays a softer, PG-13-rated side of the morally righteous lone wolves running through his 21st-century movie career. His character this time is a retired bank robber, renewed by the love of a good woman (Kate Walsh, as a storage locker facility manager studying for a graduate degree in psychology) but inconveniently framed for murder by a couple of bad apples in the FBI.
The key moment arrives when Tom Carter, the Neeson character, has just had it with the weaselly feds trying to steal the $9 million he stole. This leaves a Neeson character hellbent on revenge only one option: To the hardware store! Time for some inexpensive but deadly materials for homemade explosives.
"I'm doing it the only way I know how," he says, sounding both resigned and determined, like a man who hasn't just seen all three "Taken" movies, but starred in them.
That's the movie all over: resigned to its script contrivances, yet determined to see them through. Directed and co-written (with Steve Allrich) by Mark Williams, set in and around Boston, "Honest Thief" deals with the challenges of a morally righteous crook going straight. For years, this particular honest thief has been known to the public and to law enforcement as "the in-and-out" bandit, which makes him sound like a serial hamburglar but is meant to indicate his stealthy acumen.
Before we continue, I'd like to point out I like watching Neeson in just about anything. I like him especially in some of the non-franchise, off-center action vehicles he has made in the last dozen years, from "The Grey" to "Unknown." This one's a middling addition to the list.
OK, continuing: "It wasn't about the money," Tom says about the 12 banks he robbed in seven states to the tune of $9 million. "It just felt good." (There's a backstory there, involving a hard-working father robbed of his pension by a greedy corporate CEO.) Now the time has come for Tom to return every penny, do a couple years' time and move on with his new life with "bubbly" Annie, as she's described in the promotional materials.
Jai Courtney seethes like an Olympic seether as the agent who figures stealing from an honest thief isn't so bad, even if it leads to corpses. Anthony Ramos is his conflicted FBI partner in crime. (The varying levels of shady help complicate a rickety script.) The good FBI guys are played by Robert Patrick and, sharing nearly every scene with a dog his character inherited from a recent divorce, Jeffrey Donovan.
The gunplay favors claustrophobic, modestly budgeted confinement. One shootout takes place with Neeson inside a stolen bakery truck. Another occurs inside a smallish apartment, with Neeson crouched behind a sofa. The scene introducing Tom to Annie at the beginning of "Honest Thief" suggests a different, more comically tinged film entirely. She discovers him poking around behind the front desk at the storage facility, and finds that super-beguiling and not indicative of anything suspicious. Whatever on the believability: Walsh and Neeson perform a small magic trick here, establishing a rapport and getting by on easygoing charm.
"There's something else I need to tell you," Tom tells Annie after he asks her to move in with him. He's on the verge of revealing his secret former bank-robber identity, but she cuts him off, since there'd be no movie if she let him finish, and says: Oh, no. "Not tonight. This girl has had enough surprises for one night." As written, this character may be the least perceptive future psychologist in film history. Then again, nobody partakes of an "Honest Thief" for plausible human behavior. It's a movie about a movie star taking out the trash, leaving behind a lower body count than usual, but executing his duties faithfully, and with a predictable dash -- the right kind of predictable -- of world-weary charisma.
85 Cast: Liam Neeson, Robert Patrick, Kate Walsh, Anthony Ramos, Jeffrey Donovan, Jai Courtney
Director: Mark Williams
Rating: PG-13, for strong violence, crude references and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes