Editor’s Note:As movie theaters begin opening their doors all over the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, we highly recommend you evaluate your local conditions and theater hygiene standards before heading out to the theater. While you’re there, please also follow all recommendations from the CDC and local authorities. No movie is worth potential exposure to a virus, but we’re cognizant that some areas may be safer than others at the moment. Do what you need to do to feel safe, and remember: Just wear the damn maskif you do decide to go.
There’s almost something stupidly comforting about a new mediocre Liam Neesons joint popping up in theaters right about now; a sign of normalcy, perhaps, in a deeply not-normal time, much like college football returning or your favorite taqueria serving takeout after a prolonged shutdown. But make no mistake, had this been any other time in recent memory, Mark Williams’ Honest Thief would have been the first Neeson action movie of this type to go straight to VOD, because it’s not even vaguely up to snuff in comparison to his other star vehicles, though it’s not an unpleasant watch by any means. Would it be worth seeing in a theater in any environment? Not really. Pandemic or not, you probably should wait for this one to arrive for home viewing, but Neeson completists will find some things to love here.
Neeson stars as Tom, a grizzled badass veteran, who, after watching his father waste away while higher-ups at his dad’s company robbed the working men and women blind by embezzling their pension fund, decided to start robbing banks. Known as the “In-and-Out Bandit” (it’s a truly awful name, and Neeson hates it in the film as much as I do currently writing this), Tom is a clean and concise bank robber — no one ever knows he’s in until he’s long gone with the cash, though he’s never spent a dime of it. Yes, that’s right: the movie opens with Tom renting a storage unit to stash his millions in, and he has a quick meet-cute with Annie (Kate Walsh), a divorced Boston College student who works behind the counter at the storage center to make ends meet. A year later, the two have become a couple, and Tom decides it’s time for him to give up the life of crime. He calls up the FBI and is astonished to discover that the higher-up agents, Baker (Robert Patrick) and Meyers (Jeffery Donovon), don’t believe his confession, especially with the volume of false ones they’ve been getting from the public.
Eventually, at Tom’s insistence, the higher-ups send a pair of junior special agents, Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos) out to investigate, thinking that it’ll be bunk and isn’t worth wasting their valuable time over. They meet with Tom, who gives them the key to his storage unit, and, sure enough, they find out that the man is who he says he is, and a shitload of money is hidden in that storage unit. Nivens decides to steal the money and wants to kill Tom in order to cover his tracks and Hall’s conscience tugs at him, but he goes along with the plot anyway. Soon enough, Baker is killed by his own men to tie off a loose end, and Tom and Annie have to go on the lam while trying to prove Tom’s innocence, while Meyers follows and judges the guilt of all involved. So, yeah, pretty standard thriller fare, but, then again, that might be a part of why it just feels so comfortable to watch.
Those looking for thrills will find themselves pretty heavily disappointed by Honest Thief, as this is a relatively sedate affair compared to other Neeson actioners (the gold standard is A Walk Among the Tombstones, for my money), and perhaps some should have taken Neeson more seriously when he announced his retirement from action films because you wouldn’t really confuse this for Taken any day of the week. This is perhaps Neeson’s least action-packed action movie released to date — there are two fight scenes and a single shootout, all of which takes up about as much time as the film’s bizarrely long end credits — and it’s not particularly engaging, at least on a cinematic level. Williams, the creator of Netflix’s Ozark, has a knack for longer-form crime stories, but he’s a weirdly stiff filmmaker in his own right, and, as such, this potboiler never rises above a simmer, at least in the suspense department. But, amusingly, it makes up for it in a number of unexpected ways.
Out of Neeson’s action-oeuvre, Honest Thief is by far the most baffling, convoluted, and silly in its plotting, which, oddly enough, makes it kind of endearing. It’s an affable kind of stupid, where Neeson is this ex-marine bank-robbing G who moves in silence like lasagna when he’s planting bombs in Jai Courtney’s house, or in Jai Courtney’s car, but can’t fathom that the FBI might be inundated with calls from people who are also claiming responsibility for the crimes or that handing off the key to a storage unit full of millions of dollars to random people he’s just met, regardless of the badge they might be holding, is kind of a bad idea. But it’s weirdly tender, as well — I love seeing Neeson be cute and/or vulnerable and his romance with Walsh is surprisingly sweet, even if it’s a little bit odd in its progression — and there are fun little grace notes placed all throughout the film that make it, at the very least, amusing. Donovon’s sidekick, a dog that he won in his divorce while his ex-wife kept the house, who accompanies him everywhere is one such detail.
Can I just say how much I love Donovon’s post-Burn Notice career, where, in films like this and Villains, he just decided to get fucking weird on us? He’s the only member of the cast who even attempts a Boston accent, and as goofy is, it’s still kind of likable, just like Honest Thief itself.