Movie Review: ‘Run All Night’

Liam Neeson’s character in “Run All Night” makes Bryan Mills, the actor’s trigger-happy CIA operative in three “Taken” films, look like Oskar Schindler. When we first meet Jimmy Conlon, the sloppy-drunk former hit man is flat broke, dressed in a Santa suit that reeks of liquor, and making vulgar comments about a colleague’s wife. Having murdered 16 or more people — including a relative — Jimmy carries around a burden of guilt that has crushed him into the shape of something hateful.

Nicknamed the “Gravedigger,” Neeson’s antihero is hard to like, let alone recognize as human, even with the reservoir of goodwill that the actor’s fans naturally bring with them to his films, more and more of which feature some version of this damaged soul. Is it any wonder that Jimmy’s grown son Michael (Joel Kinnaman) hasn’t spoken to his father in five years? Just about the only one left with any feeling for Jimmy is Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), the mob boss for whom Jimmy once worked, and whose affection for his former triggerman seems closer to pity.

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But even that pity dries up when Jimmy kills Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook), an unpleasant cokehead who was about to shoot Michael. Shawn vows vengeance on his former employee, mustering his army of goons — and a coolly methodical hit man, robotically played by the rapper Common — to kill Michael as son-for-a-son payback. In a bid for the kind of phony redemption that movies of this ilk typically traffic in, Jimmy resolves to save Michael, at all costs.

The film by Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed Neeson in “Unknown” and “Non-Stop,” plays out with the stylish if numbingly schematic brutality of an artsy action flick. Despite some cool camera work and the kind of noir-lite moral ambiguity that barely gets your shoes dirty (courtesy of a shallow script by Brad “Out of the Furnace” Ingelsby), the movie is the cinematic equivalent of junk food. It satisfies the craving for the sensation of nihilism, without its substance. A typical line of Jimmy’s: “Just because I’m not behind bars doesn’t mean I’m not paying for what I did.”

Oh, really? And exactly how is Jimmy paying for it?

By killing more people, apparently. After sobering up quickly enough to strain even the most generous credulity, Jimmy embarks on a one-night mission to protect his son, dispatching Shawn’s henchman and a bunch of cops (who were presumably crooked anyway) with impunity. Whenever Michael himself picks up a weapon in self-defense, Jimmy makes sure to disarm him.

And just why is that? What gradually becomes clear, in a portrait of loathsomeness that is less dramatic than depressing, is that Jimmy isn’t protecting Michael from Shawn so much as he is protecting him from turning into Jimmy.

★ ★ ★

R. Contains violence, drug use, obscenity and sexual dialogue.

Rare Tennessee Williams Story Published for First Time

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As she takes in the despair of her in-laws’ one-room apartment in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Blanche Dubois exclaims: “Only Poe! Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do it justice!”

Years earlier, Tennessee Williams channeled Poe for an entire story.

Williams’ “The Eye That Saw Death,” appearing in the spring issue of The Strand Magazine, is a feverish, 4,800-word horror tale clearly inspired by the patron of the genre. Recently unearthed by Strand managing editor Andrew F. Gulli, “The Eye That Saw Death” is narrated by an unnamed man who has suffered from a seemingly incurable disease that has left him nearly blind. At age 30, he receives an eye transplant that restores his sight but leaves him with ghoulish side effects. The narrator is afflicted with visions that begin as a “chaotic blur,” then become more focused and traumatizing, whether “huge, black, bulging eyes” or “terrible, tusk-like teeth.”

The new eye, it turns out, belonged to a convicted killer. The narrator begs to have the surgery reversed.

“It is true that the pleasures of the blind are few and frugal,” Williams writes. “They live apart from the world and participate little in its affairs. But I do not regret that choice I made the day I fell, raving mad with horror, to the floor of the oculist’s office. Oh, never! Far, far better to be blind than to see with the eye that saw death!”

Gulli, who has previously published little-known works by Graham Greene and John Steinbeck among others, found “The Eye That Saw Death” at one of the country’s leading literary archives, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Williams scholar George Crandell says the undated work is a “pretty good story” and surprisingly polished for a piece never published before. Crandell is especially impressed because he thinks Williams was likely in high school when he completed it.

“The story has a similar feel to ‘The Vengeance of Nitocris,’ kind of a horror story that was published in Weird Tales in 1928 (when Williams was 16),” says Crandell, the associate dean of Auburn University’s graduate school and a member of the editorial board of the literary journal the Tennessee Williams Annual Review.

“The Eye That Saw Death” has a fable-like quality even as its plot recalls Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It reads like an inversion of Greek mythology, in which the blind are not prophets or wise men, but those who truly will not see — or like an allegory for creative expression, when the artist is almost literally tortured by his vision.

Williams had good reason to be preoccupied with eyesight. He had poor vision in his left eye and would undergo four cataract operations, one of which he describes in “Memoirs,” published in 1975. In a humorous but unsettling scenario that his early short story seemed to anticipate, Williams remembers agreeing to a procedure for which the doctor waived his fee in return for Williams allowing the operation to be the basis of a lecture to observing student ophthalmologists.

“The patient is now in position, apply the straps,” Williams remembers, roughly, the doctor saying.

“Tighter, tighter, he has a history of vomiting during the surgery. Eyelids secured against blinking, pupil anesthetized now. The needle is now about to penetrate the iris. It is now into the iris. It has now penetrated the lens. Oh, oh, vomiting, nurse, choking, tube in esophagus. My God, what a patient. I mean very good, of course, but an unusual case.”

Movie Review: ‘71’

The early 1970s were bloody in Northern Ireland, with the Troubles building toward a fever pitch of bombings, riots and shootings that sent the death toll skyrocketing. It makes for an explosive backdrop in “ ’71,” director Yann Demange’s gripping feature directorial debut about a British soldier who gets left behind by his unit in Belfast following a chaotic riot in 1971.

The plot sounds like the low-hanging fruit of action movies: A hero in peril needs to survive the night. But the complicated history elevates the story above pulp.

Up-and-coming actor Jack O’Connell (“Starred Up,” “Unbroken”) plays Gary Hook, who joined the army after growing up in an orphanage where his younger brother still lives. Shortly after Gary enlists, his unit is shipped to Belfast to subdue an increasingly dangerous situation. If the newbies in Gary’s unit are ill-prepared, then their commander, the friendly if nervous Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), is even more naive. He sends the men into the thick of things without riot gear, hoping a human touch and eye contact will be enough to quell the violence. It isn’t.

The city looks apocalyptic with burned-out, still smoldering cars; small children hurling grotesque insults (and worse); and, at the sight of soldiers, people slamming metal trash can lids against the street, creating an unbearable din. What starts as a small crowd quickly swells into an irate horde.

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During the first of many harrowing scenes, Gary gets separated from his unit and beaten by a mob. By the time he breaks free, his fellow soldiers have already rolled out, forcing him to scurry through the foreign streets, trying to evade armed nationalists out for British blood.

Unbeknownst to him, Gary’s survival depends not just on his own instincts, but on a complicated web of people, including two factions of the Irish Republican Army, British loyalists and undercover agents. To add to the confusion, each group is double-crossing another.

Meanwhile, Gary continues his odyssey and meets some charitable souls along the way. A young child (whose accent was indecipherable to these American ears) leads the soldier to what seems like safety, while a father and daughter risk their lives to help the young man.

The taut script was penned by Gregory Burke, who wrote the acclaimed play “Black Watch,” about Scottish soldiers in Iraq. The man knows how to build a story: Every early scene has a job that it performs well, to either deepen our understanding of the protagonist or foreshadow what’s to come. When a commander pulls down a map of Belfast and tells soldiers that they need to steer clear of a public housing complex known as the Divis Flats, we know that information is going to come in handy later.

The filmmaking is equally efficient. After an explosion, the picture blurs and the only sound is a dull ringing. We feel like we’re there. But be warned: The fact that Demange aims for realism means the violence can be grisly.

“ ’71” succeeds as an action thriller, but with enough complexity to keep the brain engaged. The film is also a reminder of the byproducts of hatred. Seeing children who were taught from a young age to despise is both painful and powerful. The Troubles are over, which should give the viewer a tiny glimmer of hope. With all the difficult images in “ ’71,” though, neither Burke nor Demange seems particularly interested in optimism.

★ ★ ★ ★

R. Contains strong violence, disturbing images and language. 99 minutes.

Movie Review: ‘The Mind of Mark DeFriest’

Less than 15 minutes into the “The Mind of Mark DeFriest,” the subject of this documentary — a prisoner in shackles — turns to the camera and asks, with a laugh, “Do I seem crazy? Can we have an honest opinion from the peanut gallery?”

Don’t answer that question.

At least not yet. As you watch the rest of Gabriel London’s compelling film unfold, your opinion about the sanity of its titular subject may change, more than once. In 1980, at the age of 20, DeFriest was sent to a Florida prison for the theft of some tools. That four-year sentence ultimately stretched to 105 years after repeated escape attempts and other erratic, less-than-model behavior that raised questions about his competency.

The opinion of psychologist Robert Berland — who, early in DeFriest’s sentence, testified that the prisoner was faking signs of mental illness — has certainly changed. London’s film centers on the efforts of Berland, who, along with DeFriest’s wife and lawyer, has been trying in recent years to get the Florida parole board to recognize that Berland’s earlier expert opinion was in error, and that DeFriest is — indeed, that he probably always was — psychotic.

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This makes for a dramatic tale. But so do De­Friest’s firsthand accounts of his seven escapes (out of 13 attempts), which show why he was dubbed “Houdini” by the press. DeFriest provides lively interviews, some of which are unfortunately garbled by bad phone connections. London supplements these with animated reenactments of his exploits, sometimes narrated by actor Scoot McNairy, who reads from DeFriest’s journals, letters and court transcripts. This prisoner comes across as someone with great native intelligence, if not always the best judgment.

Of course, cleverness, as several people interviewed for the film note, is not the same as sanity.

After an earlier version of the film was shown at film festivals last year, late-breaking developments in DeFriest’s case forced London to update the movie, which now includes something of a surprise ending.

But the biggest surprise may be the way London turns the portrait of an escape artist into a powerful indictment of the American prison system, which many reformers, London included, argue merely warehouses the mentally ill.

★ ★ ★

Unrated. Contains obscenity, sexual content, drug references and brief violent imagery. 92 minutes.

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