Honest Thief isn’t a radical reinvention of the stereotypical “Liam Neeson action star” story, but it offers action-packed amusement nonetheless.
By now, you basically know what to expect from a Liam Neeson thriller. At the start of each film, Neeson seems like an everyday “Average Joe” just minding his business and/or fawning over his family, and then, out of nowhere, he’s crossed in some way by anonymous (or not-so-anonymous) assailants, and this innocuous everyman unveils a slew of formerly secret skills he’ll use over the course of 90-100 minutes to dispatch those who would do harm to him or his loved ones. Studios practically have Neeson’s films down to a science at this point – earn moderate marks from critics, collect a decent amount of cash at the box office, rinse, and repeat. In a way, these stories have even formed their own subgenre of sorts, beginning with Neeson’s stupendously successful 2009 thriller Taken (still the best of the bunch, for my money) and continuing with subsequent financial smashes such as 2011’s Unknown, 2014’s Non-Stop, and 2018’s The Commuter. Sure, some have been stronger than others (with Taken 2 and Taken 3 standing out as much-maligned outliers), but, for the most part, Neeson has established a consistently reliable track record both critically and commercially over the past decade, and luckily, Honest Thief is yet another entertaining entry into the canon of his arousing action extravaganzas.
Mark Williams’ (Netflix’s Ozark, A Family Man) Honest Thief follows Neeson’s Tom Carter, a former bank robber who accumulated over $9 million over the course of his criminal career before falling for the animated and affable Annie (Kate Walsh, of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and Girls Trip), who runs a local self-storage facility when she’s not slaving over her studies as a part-time grad student. After a year of dating, Carter tries to turn himself in to the Feds, hoping to finally live an “honest” life by giving back the money he had stolen in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. Unfortunately, when the two officers sent to work with him and retrieve his money (Jai Courtney, of Suicide Squad and Terminator: Genisys, and Anthony Ramos, of Hamilton and A Star Is Born) end up pocketing the cash for themselves, killing their superior, and framing Carter, he’s forced to go on the run to clear his name and set things right, once and for all.
Look, Honest Thief definitely won’t win any points for originality – dutifully delivering on the promises of the “Liam Neeson” playbook to a tee – but what it lacks in inventiveness it makes up for with the intoxicating intensity of the narrative. Sure, you may be able to sense some of the suspenseful twists and turns before the picture plays its hand, but Honest Thief still has a fair share of supplemental surprises up its sleeves, and writers Steve Allrich (The Timber, Bad Karma) and the aforementioned Williams somehow find a way to continually ratchet up the stakes up until the film’s frenetic finale. In addition, Allrich and Williams always keep Tom’s troubles rooted in reality, never finding themselves in any sort of fantastical scenario, and frankly, they would have no reason to; the corruption of these cops (particularly Courtney’s Agent Nivens) is compelling and commoving enough, engaging and enraging viewers in equal measure.
However, the most successful part of Allrich and Williams’ script may surprisingly be the sweet and soulful romance between Neeson’s Tom and Walsh’s Annie. Much of the first act is actually dedicated to developing their relationship, from their initial charming “meet-cute” to additional displays of their captivating chemistry, and both Neeson and Walsh do a stellar job at selling this charismatic coupling. Tom’s devotion to Anna is essential to Honest Thief’s drama, and therefore, if we didn’t particularly “buy” this pairing, the rest of the film would ring false. Luckily, that isn’t the case, as both actors turn in admirable work, and Allrich and Williams provide them with some truly magnetic material. Unfortunately, Annie doesn’t really get in on the action at any point (a new “heralded heroine for the thriller genre” she is not), and at times the tale threatens to veer into “damsel-in-distress” territory, but Honest Thief always pulls back from using her as a “prop” of any kind, and Walsh’s innate allure enables her to eclipse any thin characterization.
Courtney and Ramos are equally effective in their roles, with Courtney doubling down on the devilish demeanor that served him so well in Divergent and Suicide Squad (as opposed to his passable but plain “good guy” personas in films like A Good Day to Die Hard and Terminator: Genisys) and Ramos capably conveying the crisis of conscience his character faces in light of Courtney’s Nivens’ actions. Courtney is relentlessly repulsive as an agent with staggering selfishness and a complete lack of regard for the rules, creating an unpredictable antagonist that seems to always have the upper hand. Meanwhile, although Ramos’ Ramon initially overlooks Nivens’ offenses, he grows disgusted by his depravity as the film goes on. As a husband and a father of two, Ramon has much more at stake than Nivens does, and he is forced to confront his own contributions to these crimes and decide whether standing up and speaking out is worth it, in spite of what woes may follow. The tenacious tug-of-war between these two is also quite enticing to experience, especially thanks to Ramos’ perceptible pain, causing us to constantly reconsider what he might do.
Director Mark Williams may not have the same spirited style as Pierre Morel (Taken) or Neeson’s frequent collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, The Commuter), but he stages some striking shootouts and climactic car crashes nonetheless, and as a result, the action here never feels “feeble” in comparison to Neeson’s other films. Even though this may be Williams’ first time overseeing a thriller odyssey such as this, Honest Thief still has all the energetic excitement of any Neeson action epic, and audiences will no doubt be impressed and invested in the tense tale unfolding onscreen.
In the end, if you’re a fan of Liam Neeson’s schtick, Honest Thief will also be right in your wheelhouse. The film may not radically reinvent this specific subgenre of suspenseful thrillers, but it’s yet another spirited showcase for the star’s strengths regardless, and with an additionally stirring love story, there’s an extra layer of sentiment to his usual shenanigans.