Note: The writer of this review watched Honest Thief from home on a digital screener. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Although he boasts the nickname “The In And Out Bandit,” the bank robber Liam Neeson plays in Honest Thief has more in common with Batman than any supervillain. He’s above the law and deigns to participate in the system when it suits him. He pops up randomly and disappears just as mysteriously. He doesn’t believe in guns or killing, and prefers to intimidate his adversaries with threatening phone calls and homemade explosive devices (though he gets his materials at the hardware store, not from a lavishly funded secret weapons program). In other words, although this film does break one rule of hyper-masculine revenge thrillers—we won’t say which one, in the interest of spoilers—the fantasy on offer here is fairly typical.
Everything about Honest Thief can be described as “fairly typical,” to be honest. The only thing that really stands out about it is its screenplay—which isn’t a compliment, given that the notable bits either expose the writers’ subconscious biases (this film has some positively Victorian ideas about the innate morality of women, for one) or come across as overly convenient and half-baked. Neeson, of course, stars as Tom, whose burglary career came to a halt the moment he met Annie (Kate Walsh) behind the counter at the storage facility where she works. A year and change later, Tom has decided to turn himself in to the FBI, in order to clear his conscience and make himself worthy of Annie’s love. But not only does the FBI flat-out refuse to believe him, but an agent named Nivens (Jai Courtney) seeks to manipulate Tom’s guilt for his own personal gain.
And so, what’s taken from Neeson in this instance isn’t a wife or a daughter but his chance at redemption. That’s an intriguing idea, one that a better movie would have explored with more interiority and moral nuance. The film also could have used more thievery: Neeson’s gravely baritone pairs quite harmoniously with a monologue toward the beginning explaining how Tom pulled off a bank heist over a three-day holiday weekend. But for most of the movie, Tom is simply resigned to his fate, waiting around in a hotel room for the FBI to come and arrest him. When the action does start, it escalates very quickly, before fizzling out well in advance of the final reckoning. In the meantime, the dynamic between Tom and Agent Nivens hints at a more daring movie altogether, as Nivens leaves a trail of bodies in his wake like the T-1000 in Terminator 2 (ironic, given that Robert Patrick plays his boss), while Neeson plots a quieter, more cerebral revenge.
One interesting detail in this film is that the characters take the time to reload their guns mid-shootout, suggesting a level of thoughtfulness and realism that makes the more superficial character work all the more frustrating. Rather than dig into systemic corruption or Tom’s personal demons, the script opts for easy answers in the form of the “one bad apple” trope and the idea that the love of a good woman purifies all. Pithy one-liners and a subplot about another FBI agent bonding with the dog he adopted to spite his bitchy ex-wife—the devil to the good woman’s angel—serve their purpose, which is to say they keep things moving between the action sequences. Not exactly a thinking man’s action movie, and not a gleefully dopey thrill ride either, Honest Thief is as grudging as its main character when it comes to doling out thrills.