Blacklight was directed by Mark Williams (Ozark, Honest Thief), written by Williams and Nick May (A career attorney making his debut), and stars Liam Neeson (Clash of the Titans, Cold Pursuit), Emmy Raver-Lampman (Umbrella Academy, Gatlopp), Taylor John Smith (Shadow in the Cloud, Wolves), Aidan Quinn (Flipped, Elementary), and Claire van der Boom (The Pacific, Palm Beach). It’s about an FBI fixer who gets second thoughts about the integrity of his employers and goes down the rabbit hole to protect one of their targets.
The Plot: If that brief introduction sounds like more than a few action movies, that’s because it’s the case with Blacklight. What almost sets this one apart from the others are the two parties in play: the government and journalists, using their tumultuous relationship as a starting point.
Getting back from stepping between a right-wing militia and two police officers to save an FBI agent gets Travis (Neeson) a pat on the back from bureau director Robinson (Quinn). Despite being ready to retire to become a part of his daughter Amanda’s (van der Boom) family, he’s called on to get agent Crane (Smith) out of jail, as he was about to talk to a reporter about the recent death of a progressive politician. It’s a little too silly in its setup, making cartoons the earnest vessel for modern hazards, but the premise is intriguing regardless.
Going back on his word that he wouldn’t speak to journalist Mira (Raver-Lampman), Crane escapes from Travis and eventually lets both of them know that, unsurprisingly, Robinson is to blame for the death of the politician. The problem with the plot is that it takes an all too real premise and chews it up for the commercial machine, forcing it to look and play like a generic thriller instead of digging deeper into the history or morality of either party to make its pretense of integrity more than just a pretense.
One-man army action is reserved for the last act, with Williams and May unable to resist going back to the Taken movies’ first act to finish out Blacklight. Travis is stricken by Robinson’s involvement with the coverup and teams with Mira to get the story out and save Travis’s family. Although there are flashes of interest in the FBI’s doings, the movie returns to formula, making it decay in originality and intrigue.
The Characters: There is an attempt to make a memorable protagonist for Neeson to play, but all of the other characters in play are laughable caricatures that only work on the visual level as the script misplaces motivation and depth.
Travis Block (now THAT’S a cool name) is a Vietnam vet who’s been working for the FBI for over 20 years. This commitment to country, and a serious case of OCD, have cost him his relationship with his wife, who left him and Amanda a long time ago. Amanda is on the verge of doing the same due to his negligence of herself and her own daughter, as well as spontaneous security checks on her house; now he’s trying to do right, but he can’t turn off his training. Altogether though, he’s just another shadowy agent with skills.
Significantly less detail is presented to the journalist and her would-be source. Mira is essentially who the screenwriters want the audience to think of when they hear the word “journalist” since she’s overwhelmingly committed to printing the truth, transgressive in her ideals, skeptical of all authority, and has a weird hairstyle. That’s pretty much antonymous to most modern journalists – minus the hair – and Raver-Lampman can’t legitimize the character. Similarly swamped with a weak character is Smith, whose young agent is driven to become a whistleblower not only because of the blatant corruption but due to his burgeoning relationship with the murdered politician. Talk about a perfect storm.
Williams and May couldn’t make a decent arc here, making 180s for Travis and Crane to perform and exaggerations for Mira and Robinson to embody.
The Thrills: Blacklight tries to skirt by on the feeling of vulnerability, putting its characters not only in the crosshairs but under a microscope. It works in certain instances, but the feeling doesn’t extend throughout the entirety of the movie.
Conspiracy is the name of the game here, with the aging agent too deep into his career path to even question the honesty of the FBI. Crane can’t get through to Travis in this regard, and neither can Mira until she tells him about “Operation Unity”, which is the way that Robinson’s bureau keeps the peace; by killing innocent civilians. Travis goes to Robinson about the information, but there isn’t a sense of illumination surrounding the op beyond that mission statement, leaving things too hazy to be exciting after the insinuation of the idea.
Danger is supposedly afoot for those that threaten to shine a light on the FBI’s actions, and while this is true for most, it’s not the case for Travis and Mira for a majority of the runtime. Crane’s worry about the safety of the country’s people does extend to the screen, as he’s so intent on getting the word out that when he escapes from Travis, he steals a garbage truck and barrels through D.C. to meet with Mira in one of the best sequences of the movie.
The agency does eventually catch up with him, and to Mira’s editor who publishes her story, but it seems like a stretch for Robinson not to target either of the main characters by this point, except for an ominous drawing from Travis’s granddaughter showing a stranger watching her and Amanda. That’s a drawing with a scarier monster than anything in a horror movie.
Robinson does eventually wipe the books clean by spurring gunfights between Travis and other agents who were assigned to get rid of him, and by having Travis’s family taken from their home, having the house sold, school and employment records wiped, and so forth. It’s a step in the right direction, even if the fights are generic, but it’s a miss overall. Also, I am immensely disappointed that Williams didn’t use the FBI’s actual tactic: shooting someone twice in the back of the head and ruling it a suicide.
The Technics: Neeson’s bruisers always have a baseline of quality to their construction, and that remains the truth for Blacklight, which is a slick and glossy 43-million-dollar production without many faults, but equally without much flair.
Shelly Johnson’s (Greyhound, Hidalgo) cinematography is competent but nothing special, as he keeps all the shots at a mid-level and mid-length, although there are some instances where the lighting and post-production tweaking make for visually compelling scenes, and the action sequences are kept clear from choppy editing, but there isn’t enough of this kind of attention to detail running through the movie.
While the writing frequently disappoints, the movie itself is paced well enough to cover up the reliance on subplots instead of the operation at hand until the movie is over. At 104 minutes long, it’s not a tough sit, but it’s a familiar sit. Performances from Neeson and Quinn are familiar too, as both of them have done these kinds of roles plenty of times and there isn’t much differentiating the characters from others they’ve done before.
Blacklight has its moments of low-wattage excitement stemming from a compelling premise, but its characters are weak, its plot deflates rapidly, and its tone is indeterminate. It’s easily the weakest of Neeson’s action/thrillers.
Blacklight is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital platforms from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. And if you want more films like Blacklight, FilmTagger has a particular set of recommendations.