Some movies feature a training montage in which the star is seen flexing his muscles or honing his firearm skills in preparation for a big battle. There’s no such need for that in the latest Liam Neeson vehicle. All Honest Thief needs to do is show its star shopping for supplies in a hardware store to let the audience know that some serious mayhem is about to occur.
That sort of shorthand stems from the actor’s improbable late-in-life transition to action movie star. Neeson’s imposing physical presence, gravelly voice and minimalist acting style perfectly suit this sort of genre material, of which this capable effort from writer-director Mark Williams (co-creator of Netflix’s Ozark) is the latest example.
Less baroque than some of Neeson’s recent efforts, Honest Thief is a solid B-movie thriller that benefits from tight pacing that helps you overcome its significant plot incredulities. Minus its elaborate car chases and pyrotechnics, the film would have landed perfectly as a ’40s-era Warner Brothers programmer starring the likes of James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart.
Neeson, who fits squarely in that tradition, plays Tom Carter, who has spent the last several years meticulously robbing small-town banks while avoiding any violence. Dubbed by the media as the “In and Out Bandit,” Tom is ready to give up his life of crime after meeting and falling in love with the vivacious Annie (Kate Walsh), the manager of the storage facility where he’s stashed his impressive $9 million dollars in illicit loot.
Rather than, say, simply returning the money to the authorities anonymously and living happily ever after, the virtuous Tom contacts the FBI and offers to turn himself in and give back the cash in return for a lighter sentence. Unfortunately, he doesn’t anticipate that the agents assigned to his case, Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos), will double-cross him by framing him for the murder of their superior (Robert Patrick, exuding his usual gravitas) and trying to kill him.
Those crooked agents have clearly never seen a Liam Neeson movie, since everybody who has knows by now that things don’t go well when you try to take something that’s his (even the film’s poster makes the case, warning “Never Steal a Man’s Second Chance”). Soon, Tom and Annie are involved in a deadly cat-and-mouse game against them, even while also being relentlessly pursued by the straight-arrow Agent Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan, Burn Notice).
“Agent Nivens, I’m coming for you,” Tom quietly intones at one point, and there’s no doubt that’s a promise that will be violently fulfilled. Besides bank robbing, Tom has a particular set of skills stemming from his service as a Marine, including demolitions expertise and being surprisingly effective in hand-to-hand combat with significantly younger men.
By now, Neeson can do this sort of thing in his sleep. But he fully invests himself in the material, delivering lines like “I’m gonna make things right, my way” with just enough menace while providing subtle notes of tenderness and humor that make his character fully sympathetic. Walsh is charmingly endearing as the plucky love interest willing to put herself in danger, and Donovan does solid work as the agent who comes to respect and trust his adversary (although the actor is saddled with far too much cutesy business involving an adorable dog).
Running a sleek 90 minutes before the credits roll, Honest Thief is certainly efficient if not exactly original, with writer/director Williams infusing it with enough quirky character touches — such as Tom crankily complaining how much he hates his “In and Out Bandit” moniker — to distract from the derivative feeling of it all. Much like its central character, the film at least proves honest in its intentions.
Available in theaters
Production companies: Argonaut Entertainment Pictures, Briarcliff Entertainment, Cutting Edge Group, Dreadnought Films, Honest Thief Productions, Ingenious Media, J Cubed Film Finance, Samuel Marshall Productions, Sprockefeller Pictures, Zero Gravity Management
Distributor: Open Road Films
Cast: Liam Neeson, Kate Walsh, Jeffrey Donovan, Jai Courtney, Anthony Ramos, Robert Patrick
Director/screenwriter: Mark Williams
Producers: Mark Williams, Myles Nestel, Tai Duncan, Craig Chapman, Jonah Loop
Executive producers: Andrea Ajemian, Jonathan Bross, Christelle Conan, Stephen Emery, Tara Finegan, David Gilbery, Eric Gold, Warren Goz, John Jencks, James Masciello, Matthew Sidari, Joe Simpson, Martin Sprock, Jay Taylor, Simon Williams, Lisa Wilson
Director of photography: Shelly Johnson
Production designer: Tom Lisowski
Editor: Michael P. Shawver
Composer: Mark Isham
Costume designer: Deborah Newhall
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Michelle Wade Byrd
Rated PG-13, 99 min.