By the standards of Liam Neeson thrillers (and there are a lot from which to choose), “Honest Thief” is pretty weak tea, a passable, low-octane action movie that doesn’t do much more than steal one’s time. Like second-tier John Wayne westerns, Neeson offers enough of what his fans want, but a thin script and stilted dialogue make the battle harder than usual.
In “Taken,” its sequels and similarly themed fare since — a la “The Commuter” and “Cold Pursuit” — Neeson has carved out a niche as a likable guy who’s easy to root for and a very, very bad idea to cross. That’s essentially the formula here, although the template actually proves closer to something like “FX” — where the protagonist uses his specialized skills to fight the bad guys — than the most obvious comparisons to Neeson’s filmography.
Neeson plays Tom Carter, a former Marine who has cleaned out enough banks to earn the nickname the In and Out Bandit, and he’s introduced plying his trade. When he meets Annie (Kate Walsh), he decides to settle down and come clean, contacting the FBI and offering them a deal: A light sentence, near where she can visit him, in exchange for returning the stolen loot.
Still, an extended plea deal wouldn’t exactly meet the customary action requirements, so Carter is pretty quickly double-crossed by corrupt agents, forcing him to go on the run and defend himself. In pursuit are FBI agents harboring different objectives, the most prominent being Agent Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan), who spends his spare time cooing at his dog, and a pair of younger agents (Jai Courtney, Anthony Ramos) under his supervision.
Mostly, it’s an excuse for Neeson to say things like “I’m comin’ for you” as only he can, and eventually marshal his thieving/safecracking talents against those pursuing him. Unfortunately, both he and perhaps especially Walsh are saddled with a lot of bad dialogue (the film was written and directed by Mark Williams), in the latter case punctuated by her understandable surprise that the new man in her life is suddenly a fugitive.
Neeson has joked in recent years about getting a little long in the tooth to be running around in these sort of movies, but he remains plenty convincing in selling such a premise, even if it’s one this conspicuously slim. (As a footnote, Ramos’ wife in the movie is played by “Hamilton” co-star and real-life fiancée Jasmine Cephas Jones.)
To be fair, “Honest Thief” is honest about its intentions, providing a check-your-brain-at-the-door escape. Of course, the decision to enter the door to a theater in order to see something this marginal could be another matter.
“Honest Thief” premieres in theaters on Oct. 16. It’s rated PG-13.