For those who don’t know, I live in a small region in Northeastern Connecticut about half an hour out of the city of Worcester, Ma where many of my friends and family either live or frequent. So in late 2018 when it was announced a new big-screen movie would be filmed in the city everyone was thrilled and excited especially seeing as Liam Neeson was set to star. That film was “Honest Thief”, a new thriller released to the big screen in October 2020. While of course I went in looking to enjoy the film simply because of my familiarity with its filming locations, I also went in with my usual critical eye and what I saw wasn’t exactly a horrible film, but a predictable, formulaic one that feels more focused on feeding off its leading man’s star power and the generic expectations of fans of the genre than setting itself apart from the pack.
“Honest Thief” stars Neeson as the “In-and-Out Bandit”, real name Tom Carter, a solo master thief and former military demolitions expert who has robed numerous banks and resides in the Boston area. After Tom meets a charismatic woman named Annie (Kate Walsh) he quickly falls in love and eventually decides to admit to his crimes and return the money he stole as he wants a reduced sentence and an honest relationship with Annie. When the cops assigned to the case (Jai Courtney and Jeffrey Donovan) decide to take the money for themselves Tom decides to get revenge to clear his name of the crimes he didn’t commit and find retribution for his thefts. In true Neeson thriller fashion this includes explosions, car chases, badass one-liners, and a 68-year-old man kicking the asses of people half his age who underestimate him. For all intents and purposes, it’s what you’d expect from a Neeson film but not as over-the-top and violent, dare I say even more wholesome than some of his past work.
I did enjoy the idea of “Honest Thief”. The concept of a crook trying to right his wrongs for the woman he loves isn’t a new concept, and it’s been handled with more dramatic heft, but “Honest Thief” puts a nice simple spin on the idea giving us a flawed hero we can cheer for and putting him up against hateable villains with just enoguh complexity to keep us interested but not enough to destract from the action we so crave. That’s the core problem though. “Honest Thief” doesn’t go nearly as far as it should with its ideas choosing safe, cliché territory rather than charting any new ground. As I said, this is a typical Liam Neeson action picture, but it’s also a typical crime thriller where generic cops are the bad guys and the anti-hero contains a backstory that dissolves any challenging ideals we may have against him by making him more Robin Hood-like rather than just a typical bad guy gone good. There’s nothing here to challenge the status quo or the viewer which will make this easy for me to forget, but in the moment watching things on screen I found myself engaged and enjoying just experiencing these clichés for what they were and for someone like me who see so many films, usually all borrowing ideas from each other, that’s a difficult thing to do. Props to the film for keeping me interested.
Liam Neeson is, of course, charming as ever and does a decent job making his character feel like a genuinely normal person with good intentions who just happens to be talented at something the law deems despicable. Unlike many of the actor’s other recent roles, the special skills Tom possesses don’t make him a flawless fighter, they provide us with a character that’s more cunning, using his brain rather than brute force to get the upper hand. His co-star, Kate Walsh, is also quite charming even if her character is a little too forgiving once she learns of Tom’s background and the things he’s done. You’d think a woman who’s been through the checkered past she has would be much more damning of a thief, even one trying to do what’s right. Jai Courtney continues his career trajectory of being typecast as the generic “face you want to punch” kind of character as the main antagonist Agent Nevins who provides the movie with an intimidating bad guy and a fun challenge for our anti-hero that we just want to see brought to justice. Jeffrey Donovan rounds out the cast as the morally conflicted Agent Meyers, a character I feel could have and should have been much more complex but like many things in this movie ends up being a product of decisions to remain safe and familiar rather than taking many chances to provide true substance for the audience to embrace.
“Honest Thief” is a fun movie and I’ll admit its familiarity combined with its charming cast is part of what makes it so enjoyable. Plus, on a personal note, it was cool to see the city of Worcester be represented on the big screen. From a critical standpoint though there’s nothing here to help it stand out. It’s the same old song and dance in more ways than one. As a thriller, as a Liam Neeson film, as a Robin Hood story, it’s all way too much of the same and not nearly enough originality to make it more than a blip on the radar. Sometimes though you just like to experience that kind of mindless action fun with someone like Liam Neeson kicking serious ass. The plot might not make sense, the story might be cliché, and the ideas may have required much more creativity to fully flesh them out but if you’re going to get a package of clichés this is the kind of movie you want to see. It’s fun and engaging in its own special way which makes it a perfectly acceptable, if inevitably forgettable, waste of time.