Honest Thief

Another throwback to old-fashioned action hero for Neeson, who would have done better to send this well-worn character up

M, 98 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A film title with a contradiction in terms like this suggests we could be up for a fun ride. It stars Liam Neeson, a decent man behind the hunky screen presence and sonorous voice if ever there was one, so where are we going with this?

If it’s proposing that stealing from banks can be okay, it might get a tick because of recent revelations about the malpractices in the Australian banking system.

The idea of righting wrong by robbing banks is as old as a Ned Kelly or other folk heroes doing good when those in power were doing bad, by robbing the rich to give to the poor.

The honest thief in question, Tom, Liam Neeson in the role, is a former US Marine. A veteran of recent, drawn-out campaigns in sandy theatres of war a long way from home. He seems to feel he has little to show for it.

Worse still, he has felt really betrayed by the system that has denied his aging father the pension he deserved.

Honest Thief opens with a short montage of the robberies he has conducted over recent years. Breaking in is not as slick as the online fraud we have become accustomed to watching. What you might have been expecting in the digital era, right?

the ‘in-and-out bandit’, a throwback to old-fashioned action

No, this former military demolitions expert is using the expertise he gained in the Middle East to blow open safes and strong room doors. Noisy explosions are more attuned to the values of the good, old-fashioned action genre, after all.

Tom has earned the rather old-fashioned moniker of the ‘In and Out Bandit’. The script is the work of writers Steve Allrich and Mark Williams, who also directed. This nickname and some other aspects of their writing is unintentionally funny.

‘I’m the In-and-Out Bandit. I want to turn myself in’, Tom announces solemnly in a phone call to the FBI. The Feds have no idea of his identity, he has been a solo operator, and there are still no suspects for the many break-ins that Tom has made over many years. Just another unlikely aspect to the backstory.

Tom has become a changed man since a flirtation with a receptionist, Annie (Kate Walsh) at a storage and truck rental company where he is a customer. He is now a man in love and he wants to change his life. A year quickly passes, an intertitle announcement, and the relationship has deepened to the point where they are about to move in together.

The FBI doesn’t react to Tom’s announcement, and he has to hold the line a while. That’s amusing too. The bureau is obviously used to hoax callers or to members of the public with nothing to gain from being honest about themselves.

Tom has the full proceeds of crime, $9 stolen millions, untouched (‘It wasn’t about the money’) and wants to cut a deal with the authorities. Unluckily for him, he finds himself dealing with two corrupt FBI agents, Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos).

To his credit, Agent Hall is initially shocked by his colleague’s escalating violence. Somehow or other, Ramos, known for a recent lead role in the massively successful stage production, Hamilton, has strayed into this action flick.

Not only do the pair steal his stash, they stitch him up with the cold-blooded murder of another FBI colleague (Robert Carrick). He shows up in the right place at the wrong time.

a good man wronged, the place where Neeson’s characters prefer to be

Following on from this pivotal scene, in which he and Agent Nivens get into a fight and fall out of a second floor window together, Tom is on the run. A good man wronged. The place where Neeson’s characters prefer to be of late.

All this is very unjust treatment for a bank robber who wants to retire and return all his ill-gotten gains. It engenders feelings of outrage over mistreatment that are part of the essential backstory to any character who becomes a vigilante, as Neeson frequently has been in the Taken films and similar over the last decade.

This Mark Williams’ movie is storytelling by numbers. Routine and underwhelming. The filmmakers probably hoped that Neeson would lend their work some gravitas. The veteran actor’s time would have been better spent sending up his action hero persona instead.

First published in the Canberra Times on 24 October 2020