In a world where most mainstream media outlets are controlled by large conglomerates, and independent journalists face serious consequences for digging deeper into the crimes of the United States government, is anyone willing to believe a tired, naïve tale of an idealistic journalist and an aging government agent triumphing over all evil? In Blacklight, director Mark Williams wants to convince us that this world exists, but poor execution at every critical level renders that impossible.
Travis Block (Liam Neeson) is an FBI agent tasked with removing other operatives whose covers have been blown from their dangerous situations. Travis is the best at what he does—he’s so good, in fact, that the head of the FBI, Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn), won’t let him retire, much to the detriment of Travis’ relationship with his daughter Amanda (Claire van der Boom) and young granddaughter Natalie. When Sofia, a painfully obvious AOC-like candidate for Congress, is brutally murdered in a hit-and-run, undercover operative Dusty Crane (Taylor John Smith) runs to hungry young journalist Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman) with top-secret information concerning the shadowy circumstances around her death, and it’s Travis’ job to stop him. After learning that the FBI director has been hiding critical secrets from him, Travis and Mira team up to stop him.
Back in March 2021, it was reported that Williams was being sued by screenwriter Nick May for wrongfully claiming a writing credit on Blacklight; personally, I would not want my name anywhere near this script for any amount of money. Whoever did the bulk of the writing on this script missed the “show, don’t tell” lesson in Screenwriting 101, as all of this information is directly spoon-fed to the audience directly from the characters’ soapboxes. For example, the first conversation we see between Travis and Amanda inorganically swings from Travis’ lengthy FBI career to Amanda’s unsuccessful love life, purely for the sake of explaining their tenuous dynamic rather than letting us feel the heartbreak, the loneliness that these characters might be going through. Travis’ relationship with Mira, while it has the capacity for exploring a provocative dynamic between journalist and government agent, rings similarly hollow—all exposition, without showing us much of anything about who these people are and why.
It’s clear that the actors threw in the towel on day one of shooting because there was simply no way to salvage the schlocky dialogue, lazily constructed plot and one-dimensional character decisions. And I can’t say I particularly blame them! I only wish Neeson or one of the other actors had some fun with it, blown their cookie-cutter characters out of proportion, maybe made some wild choices, so that Blacklight could have been a “so bad it’s good” joint, instead of an agonizingly dull experience, akin to mindlessly scrolling through your Twitter timeline on a slow day.
In fact, all of the characters in Blacklight mention Twitter so often that the entire film feels like one man having a juvenile, black-and-white political argument with himself on a Twitter thread. In vague conversations with Travis about the larger political project of the organization, the FBI director laments “gotcha Twitter moments” and online political correctness rather than actually ever saying or doing anything even remotely menacing. For a Liam Neeson action thriller, the stakes are incredibly low: The villain poses essentially no threat. Because his politics don’t stretch very far beyond the confines of the bird app, Quinn’s FBI director is a feeble, emasculated villain only concerned with such insignificant matters as what people are talking about on Twitter.
The action only continues to reflect this tedious impotence, as Blacklight just isn’t up for the job. It’s pretty clear that most of the FX budget went to one pretty epic explosion in the beginning, and then after that, it’s all more of a whimper than a bang. Since this is more of a Twitter-thriller than an action-thriller, the majority of the runtime is spent in tense conversation instead of kicking ass or blowing stuff up. There are a couple of car chases, shot in Canberra (doubling as Washington D.C., but the rolling green mountains in the background are a dead giveaway), but nothing about them makes them stand out in a market full of car chases. Toward the end, Travis protects himself Home Alone-style against men sent to kill him, but it’s all over before it really gets going.
It is fun to see Neeson still kicking ass at nearly 70 years old, but it would be much more fun to see him still kicking ass at nearly 70 years old and making creative performance choices at the same time. Williams only seems able to commit to his flat political messaging regarding hard-hitting journalism swooping in to save the day, casting both hair-raising action and meaningful character decisions to the wayside. Poor writing and direction suffocate Neeson so thoroughly that he can’t be charming, nor weathered, nor any other distinguishable feature; instead, the stalwart of old man action is just an expensive vessel for Williams’ half-baked ideology.
Director: Mark Williams
Writer: Nick May
Starring: Liam Neeson, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Taylor John Smith, Aidan Quinn
Release Date: February 11, 2022
Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.