Honest Thief, 2020.
Directed by Mark Williams.
Starring Liam Neeson, Kate Walsh, Jai Courtney, Jeffrey Donovan, Anthony Ramos, and Robert Patrick.
Wanting to lead an honest life, a notorious bank robber turns himself in, only to be double-crossed by two ruthless FBI agents.
Liam Neeson has certainly calmed things down on the action front over the last few years, having announced his spurious “retirement” from junky thriller yarns back in 2017. But evidently he’s not entirely out of the game yet, and in fairness, there’s plenty of smart potential for him to pivot his Special Set of Skills into various, less physically demanding “dad film” subgenre riffs.
The heist film feels like a pretty solid bet for the 68-year-old actor, allowing him to focus on being his gruff, steely best while partaking less in unconvincing fisticuffs with much younger men. In theory, at least. Unfortunately, Honest Thief doesn’t nearly begin to exploit a Neeson-starring heist pic for its worth, awash in shameless cliches and howlingly programmatic dialogue as it is.
Tom (Neeson) is a thief who has amassed $9 million in cash after pulling off twelve expertly-executed heists, resulting in the media dubbing him “The In and Out Bandit.” But Tom has a desperate desire to start anew and enjoy a guilt-free life with his partner Annie (Kate Walsh), deciding to come clean to the FBI and lead them to the money in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Inevitably things don’t go as planned, and before long, Tom finds himself facing off against the corrupt Agent Nivens (Jai Courtney), who with his reluctant partner Agent Hall (Anthony Ramos) plots to lift the money for themselves while tying up any loose ends – that is, Tom and Annie.
It’s certainly a compellingly strange logline for a film of this kind, that our rough-cut protagonist confesses to his deeds – most of which we never see, sadly – in the opening moments. And though audiences will be waiting for the shoe to drop, for Tom to explain the more savory motivation behind his thievery – which does indeed arrive much later on – conceptually it’s tough to get onboard with Honest Thief‘s tricksy narrative chicanery.
Whether the naivety of Tom believing the FBI would really play ball or the absurdity of thinking Annie would agree to wait for him while he spends a (hopefully reduced) stint in prison, it all feels built on an inherently unbelievable premise. And when Tom finally explains the rationale for his heists, it smacks of a sentimental attempt to gloss over not only his theft, but the deceptive foundation his relationship with Annie is built on.
The film, co-written and directed by Ozark co-creator Mark Williams, doesn’t ever begin to convince as a piece of serious filmmaking, but it is perversely entertaining in its own chintzy way. The placeholder dialogue will muster the occasional titter, the gooey romance between Tom and Annie will rouse smirks, and you’ll howl at Neeson unconvincingly battling men so much younger than himself.
In one outrageous fight scene, Tom takes a fall out of a window that probably should’ve put him in traction, but after limping away, he seems to be more-or-less fine. Neeson also gets a rematch with the fence from Taken 3 at one point, and while that film deployed a dozen-ish camera cuts to show the man vaulting a piece of chain-link metal, Williams thankfully pulls it off in a single shot with a stuntman. Phew.
To its minor credit, this isn’t a film which takes itself entirely seriously; there’s an hilarious wink at the audience after Annie learns of Tom’s side-job at the culmination of a frantic car chase, and he casually tells her, “I can explain.” Yet this is a film that left me desperately hankering for the heightened black-comic absurdity of Neeson’s recent thriller joint Cold Pursuit. Instead, its amusing moments are balanced out by boilerplate genre plotting, especially some ham-handed attempts to humanise Agent Hall in act three.
What keeps the film forever watchable, though, is the efforts of the cast. Neeson, though undeniably slumming it here, offers an over-the-odds commitment to the role of a man hell-bent not only on revenge, but also love. Walsh is absurdly over-qualified for the role of the embattled love interest damsel, though certainly shines in her scenes with Neeson, even if she disappointingly ends up sidelined for a major chunk of the movie’s back-end (and that’s not the spoiler you might think it is).
Elsewhere Jeffrey Donovan is effortlessly charming as one of the film’s few agents without a check mark on his record, and his interactions with the adorable pet dog he received from his wife in the divorce are some of the movie’s best; they’re probably the closest the film gets to feeling Cold Pursuit-adjacent.
Jai Courtney meanwhile isn’t given much to chew on in the primary antagonist role, vacillating between sleepwalking and hamming it for the cheap seats as the scene apparently motivates him. Anthony Ramos isn’t afforded much more of an opportunity to do anything, and the great Robert Patrick’s role sadly amounts to nothing more than a walk-on cameo.
Williams’ direction is efficient enough, yet ultimately the produce of a journeyman who needs superior material to really make his work sing. The second-unit at least pulls off some silky smooth car chase coverage, though.
Despite being released as something of a stimulus package for ailing cinemas, Honest Thief feels far more at home as a streaming offering, per its prosaic writing and acceptable yet unremarkable approach to action. It is a film to be watched, fitfully enjoyed, and quickly forgotten.
Honest Thief is fun for a few trashy kicks and unintentional laughs, though struggles to convince with its fundamentally shaky premise and credibility-straining action as a pension-age Neeson barrels through men half his age.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.