BLACKLIGHT – Our no spoiler, quick-fire review

Contributed by: Dan Silvestri and Tom Pizzato - Spy Movie Navigator

“I was disappointed.  It wasn’t really entertaining” that was a quote we heard from an audience member at the end of the just-released movie, Blacklight. Was it a valid comment? Keep reading for our thoughts.

As usual with our quick-fire reviews, we won’t be giving any spoilers in this review. Our goal is to give you our high-level thoughts on the movie, let you know if we think it is worth your time, and talk about any influences on this movie from real-life or other movies.

In our January 2022 Spy Movie News, we mentioned that Blacklight was coming out this February and was the only spy movie to be scheduled for this February.  Well, it has just been released.

The Plot

The official website for the Blacklight says: “In BLACKLIGHT, LIAM NEESON is Travis Block, an operative whose discovery of a dark secret pits him against the FBI director he once swore to protect.” So, he’s an operative for a government agency and will have a conflict with his boss.  Yeah, we’ve seen that before.

Travis Block, played by Neeson is a “fixer” for FBI director Gabriel Robinson.  When a deep-cover agent has a problem Robinson sends Travis to get them out.  He works “off the books.” Block has known and trusted Robinson for a very long time. Robinson also kept Travis out of a heap of trouble in an incident when they served together in the Vietnam War. That gives us an important plot point.

There is a subplot involving Travis’ relationship with his daughter, Amanda, and his granddaughter Natalie.  Travis wasn’t a great father figure because he was gone all the time and is suspicious of everything.  He tries to make amends with his granddaughter in this movie.

We all know that in a Liam Neeson action movie you don’t mess with his family.  We could be wrong with this, but we think this family thing was added after Neeson was hired. There wasn’t much reason for them to be there for the story.  Neeson fans want him to go after whoever messes with his family so, from a marketing perspective, this makes sense.

The next plot point we’ll mention could be considered a spoiler, but since it is in the trailer, we feel fine talking about it.  The US government is killing innocent civilians under the guise of protecting democracy.  This becomes central to the plot of the movie and is likely where the movie gets its name.  We didn’t hear “blacklight” mentioned as a word in the movie.   We might have missed it but we were listening for it.  There is mention of infrared light, but they didn’t call it blacklight.  We suppose the title was given as light was being shone on this government behavior.

A reporter called Mira Jones starts to suspect this is happening and is given reason to believe it is true.  She ends up meeting with Travis to try to figure things out.  And that sets up the story.

The Cast

The movie stars Liam Neeson as Travis Block, Aidan Quinn as FBI director Gabriel Robinson, Emmy Raver-Lampman as Mira Jones, Taylor John Smith as Dusty Crane, and Claire van der Boom as Travis’ daughter Amanda.

The Influences

At Spy Movie Navigator we talk about how scenes in spy movies are influenced by other movies or by real-life events.  So, let’s look at some of those influences.

We’ll start this part of the discussion by saying this movie is pretty cliché.  There are the obligatory vehicle chases, fistfights, a big plot twist, a subordinate having a problem with a boss, and since this is a Liam Neeson movie, an issue with his family.

Those things are in most spy movies, so it is hard to pick scene by scene on those.

One scene had what we think was a great call-back to both the James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the Harry Palmer movie, The Ipcress File. Travis Block shows up at his boss’ Gabriel Robinson’s house while Robinson is working in his garden.   In The Ipcress File, Harry goes to Ross’ house as Ross is tending to his garden. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond goes to M’s house while M is tending to his butterfly collection.  So, all three of these movies have the spy going to his boss’s house while the boss was working on a hobby. We liked that touch. It gives a little more background into the characters.  Plus, most spy movies don’t show the lead spy at their boss’s house.

As for the vehicle chases, there are two major chases in this movie.  One involves a Porsche vs some sort of Chevrolet SUV.  We couldn’t tell the model.  This was very cliché and somehow the Porsche couldn’t easily outrun the SUV.

The second chase had Travis’ Dodge Challenger chasing a garbage truck.  It was almost humorous the way the Challenger tried to battle the garbage truck.  That said, we did like this chase.  It was a nice twist on the chase trope.

Speaking of Travis’ car: this Dodge Challenger was loud, like really loud.   Yet, he would drive it to places where he needed to go unnoticed.  It seemed like an odd car choice for him.

Now, the most obvious call-back to scenes being influenced by other movies has to be with Travis’ family.   From an action movie perspective, Liam Neeson is best known for the Taken trilogy.  That’s probably also his best work in this genre.  In those movies, he needs to find or protect a member of his family.

The audience will expect something similar in this movie because, although Neeson’s character has a different name, it is still Liam Neeson’s character using his very particular set of skills.  The trailer leads one to believe this is a huge part of the plot.  In fact, before we saw the movie, we expected this Quick-Fire review to spend all of its time talking about how this was just another Liam Neeson-as-Bryan Mills movie.  Well, fortunately, we were wrong about that part.  There is still a family issue in this movie, but it doesn’t manifest itself until about 2/3 of the way through the movie.  So, while important, it isn’t the main plot of the movie. That’s good in our opinion.

Our Thoughts

So, what are our overall thoughts on Blacklight?  Was that quote at the beginning of this review accurate?

It wasn’t a terrible movie, but it was cliché and a bit boring for an action movie.

What We Liked

Now, that said, let’s talk about some of the things we liked about Blacklight.

The first highlight for us is Emmy Raver-Lampman who plays reporter Mira Jones.  Although her part wasn’t well written (most of this movie has this problem), we liked Emmy in this role.  You may know her as Allison in the Netflix series “The Umbrella Academy”.  She was also on Broadway in “Hamilton” among other shows. We weren’t familiar with her and thought she did a very good job here. She stood out for us.

Aidan Quinn was another high point.  He’s an actor who always delivers good work. Again, his part wasn’t well written, but Quinn stole almost every scene he was in.

Another actor who we want to call out is Georgia Flood who plays Pearl.  This is a small role, but she lit up the screen every time she was on it.

As for Liam Neeson, if you liked him as Bryan Mills in Taken, you’ll like him here. Yes, he is 69 years old and doesn’t run as well as he did in Taken, but he knows how to play that character.  In our review of The Last Mercenary, we talked about how an older Jean Claude Van Dame could still deliver on his character-type, albeit a bit slower.  The same thing holds here.  The actor knows how to deliver this type of character, so age just means there isn’t quite as much oomph.

We already mentioned that we liked the chase between the Challenger and the garbage truck.

Another thing we liked was where they didn’t take us.  And they almost did. The movie opens with a politician, Sofia Flores giving a speech.  It was a typical left-leaning speech that we would expect from a Democratic candidate here in the US.  She was quite obviously there to make the US audience think about U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (or AOC as she’s usually called).   It made us think “oh, oh”, this movie is going to be all about left-leaning politics, which in the US would irritate half the audience.

They then balance that with the next scene where a, what we’ll call “a right-leaning mob”, has a deep-cover agent trapped in her motor home.

This scene also had the biggest and best explosion in the movie.

They could have taken these two scenes and created a preachy woke movie – and they didn’t.  The conservative vs. the liberal rhetoric ended very quickly.  Given the polarity of these types of topics in the US, it was good they moved off of it.

We also liked the overall score.  Mark Isham’s soundtrack works for this movie.

Um, that’s about it in terms of the positives.

What Went Wrong?

So, what was the movie’s problem? What didn’t we like? Mainly, in our opinion the script was weak.  There wasn’t much to it.  This could have easily been an hour or 90-minute made-for-tv movie instead of trying to be a Hollywood blockbuster.  It was a ho-hum, “check off the list” of what a Neesom action movie has become.

The screenplay was credited to Nick May, his first screenplay and it felt like it.

Here are a few examples of some of the lines from the movie to back up our thoughts:

  • “Everything I did was for you”
  • “You aren’t really going to shoot me” the response: “Yes I will”
  • “I suspect I made a poor career choice”
  • “If I find out you had anything to do with my granddaughter disappearing, you’re going to need more men”
  • “You are my weapon. You work for me.”

Yeah, not scintillating stuff. And that’s the problem with the movie. It didn’t grab us.

The “big twist” you see in these types of movies, comes out early in Blacklight and Travis Block takes a long time to figure it out. It is very obvious which might be why they give it away early. We hate when the twist comes out early.  Please keep us in suspense further into the movie.

We think that May should probably stick to his role as an Assistant Director at the Federal Trade Commission, here in the US.

The trailer was also a problem.  Marketing teams never seem to learn.  They blow it for this movie.  In Blacklight, they give away the big twist in the trailer.  It’s like in The Kingsmen: The Golden Circle where the trailer shows Harry was back in the movie after everyone thought he was dead in the first Kingsmen movie. Marketing showed Harry in the trailer which ruined the surprise.  Trailers are supposed to get us excited to see the movie, not give away major twists.

The trailer also shows Travis walking into an empty house. He says, “Where’s my family?” This leads you to believe this is another version of the Taken series.  It isn’t.

Here’s another annoying thing:  Travis Block had OCD which mainly manifested itself by showing him needing to do things three times in a row.  That said, there is no backstory on it.  He just does some things three times in a row.  Someone makes a comment on it, but the behavior isn’t explained.

Also, this movie could have been called “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight”, but that comedy was made in 1971. We don’t know how many bullets get fired in this movie but probably 99% of them didn’t hit their target.  What is it with spy movies?  Can’t anyone shoot?  We often complain about this in our podcast episodes.  A lot of bullets fly but people either never get shot or it takes 100 bullets to do it.

Another thing that drove us nuts was the cinematography or the editing, we’re not sure which it was.  Shelly Johnson was the Cinematographer.  He has an excellent resume as does the Editor, Michael Shawver.  Fairly often there were visual glitches where it looked like the shot would back up a half a second and then go forward.  It almost felt like the film was given a strong shake at this point. This was definitely a choice made either in filming or editing as it was consistent and other reviewers have commented on it, usually negatively.

When we edit our videos, we use an editing package that has glitch effects built in.  We hate glitch effects. It felt like that’s what we saw here, and it was distracting.  Often, they are used for transitions but that wasn’t the case here. It didn’t seem to serve a purpose and was just annoying.

Then there was another pet peeve of ours.  In one scene a guy walks across a wet floor in an indoor parking garage.  He gets in his Porsche and drives out onto bone-dry streets.  We know they like to shoot on wet pavement as some people think it looks better than dry pavement on the screen with the reflection.  However, when he starts walking in the garage, we were thinking, why is the floor wet?  He’s indoors.  It wasn’t raining in the garage and when he got outside the roads were dry, so it wasn’t raining out there either.  It was just odd.  If it was wet outside, this would have made sense.

A Few More Thoughts

There are a few additional things we’d like to quickly point out.  The first has to do with the filming of this movie.  Although the story’s location was Washington D.C., the movie was filmed in Australia. Given that, most of the supporting roles were played by Australian actors.  We liked that.   This was filmed during the COVID pandemic so that makes sense.  Plus, we like to see local actors used in movies.

Next, in the credits there was a team assigned to COVID issues. That was a sign of our times.  We wonder what we’ll think of that if we rewatch this movie in a few years.

And finally, the age of the audience was interesting to us.  This is an action movie.  And it stars 69-year-old Liam Neeson.   Ok, this is a very, very small dataset to work with as there were only 5 other people in the theater when we went.  We went to the 5:00 pm showing on the advanced viewing day.  That said, I’m 59 and was at least 10 years younger than any of the other 5 people in the audience.  Is Liam drawing an older audience than what we usually see for action movies, or was this an anomaly?  We don’t know but it is an interesting data point to us.  This Blacklight audience seemed a lot older than what was in the audience when we saw No Time To Die.  We know the James Bond series is fighting their demographics and working to draw in younger viewers.   Neeson may be struggling with that.

So, let’s get back to the quote from that audience member about Blacklight that opened this article: “I was disappointed.  It wasn’t really entertaining.”  We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Dan Silvestri and Tom Pizzato are the creators of the website SpyMovieNavigator.com.  We create podcasts, YouTube videos, and more focusing on spy movies.  Our podcast and our YouTube channel share the name “Cracking the Code of Spy Movies”! You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter (@SpyNavigator), and Instagram too! And we welcome you to join our private Facebook group, The Worldwide Community of Spy Movie Fans!