It’s 1991 and alcoholic NY cop, Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is tense and losing control under the influence of strong drink. Two men enter the bar he is sitting in one morning, force the proprietor to hand over his takings before shooting him dead. Scudder responds in kind in an explosive opening scene but the fall-out has serious consequences for him, as we glean later in the film.
Cut to 1997, and Scudder has given up the drink, and regularly attends AA meetings. Discharged from the NYPD, he describes himself as an unlicensed cop who does favours for people in return for gifts.
Drug trafficker Kenny Kristo - played by Dan Stevens, formerly of Downton Abbey and so good in The Guest - has a favour to ask of Scudder. Harry’s wife has been kidnapped, tortured and murdered, despite the fact that Harry had handed over ransom money. Harry doesn’t want to deal with the police, and persuades a reluctant Scudder to help him track down his wife’s killers.
What follows is Neeson essentially reprising his vigilante force persona from the Taken/Non-Stop movies, but with more light and shade in the character depiction. It’s Neeson allowing himself room to stretch himself and be more comfortable in the kind of role that has won him many fans in mainstream cinema in recent years.
Whatever about stereotypical casting, he is an extraordinary actor. His delivery, facial expression and interaction with the young kid, TJ - desperate to be his associate in the fight against crime - is compelling and mesmeric. Just like Taken, there are some taut phone conversation scenes, as the maverick cop gets on top of the bad guys psychologically.
Given Scudder’s rough diamond decency, the fact that he ends up attempting to rescue the daughter of a drug trafficker is at odds with the decent cop ethic. But you just have to set such quibbles aside and enjoy the intricate twists and turns of this compelling movie, which is based on a novel by Lawrence Block.