Solid ground doesn’t exist in the cinema of Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson. Theirs is an action cinema of distress where the mental instability of each protagonist blurs the boundaries of seemingly tight spatial parameters. Conflict unfolds violently and manipulatively within manmade (and psychological) bubbles, as vast as the multiple boroughs of New York City or as small as the cramped fuselage of a passenger jet. There is no escape, only the desperate and unflinching pursuit of truth, moral direction, and family safety. The bad guys often win, but the good guys always gain closure.
Angular compositions and desperate tracking shots populate 2011’s Unknown, 2014’s Non-Stop, and 2015’s Run All Night. Images overlap, tip, ascend and dive to visualize the world as one big box of quick sand. The camera propels through space like a boomerang, challenging logic and defying gravity with reckless abandon. Every step forward brings us closer to the lie that resides at the center of each film.
Repressed memories of overdevelopment (i.e. their forgotten lethal skills) are always clamoring to escape from Neeson’s broken warriors. Color remains the only consistent thematic marker for them while maneuvering plots of mistaken identity, paranoia, and clandestine corruption. Blasts of neon and rows of blinding fluorescents reveal the artificial texture of an idealized reality amplified by men who are slowly going mad. These are Collet-Serra and Neeson’s digital purgatories.
Unknown appears to be thawing before our very eyes. Set in wintry Berlin, Collet-Serra’s riff on the Hitchcock conspiracy thriller moves us swiftly from death to life, contemplating the magnitude of one man’s self-delusion along the way. Neeson’s amnesiac Dr. Martin Harris bumps his head during an accident that jettisons his car underwater, furthermore painting the film in jarring shades of blue. These icy compositions often feel frozen or drowsy, matching the character’s discombobulated perspective.
Take, for instance, the horrifying murder sequence set in a morgue. Martin has just been captured by a hit man (every Collet-Serra film has one) and wakes up on a metal slab in the catacombs of a hospital. The killer casually prepares a lethal dosage of poison but is interrupted by an unlucky nurse, who quickly has her neck snapped. The body drops immediately below Martin’s gaze captured in a suddenly jarring high angle shot. A pair of scissors resides in her shirt pocket just out of reach. Clothing that should be white is tinted blue, matching the corpses’ lifeless eyes. Harris might as well still be suffocating underwater for a second time.
Blue is also prevalent during multiple instances where reflections and bodies are juxtaposed, giving moments that should be kinetic a decomposing quality. During one fight sequence, when Martin and his opponent catch each other’s eyes in a broken mirror the two pause slightly before continuing their mortal embrace. Even more experimental, the swooshing composition of Martin’s body seen through windows of a passing train exhibits Collet-Serra’s love for cold, dynamic imagery.
Non-Stop provides a trickier interpretation of color since it often utilizes blinding extremes of light. Much of the film takes place within the narrow confines of an international flight across the Atlantic. Confronted with a potential terrorist threat, Neeson’s Air Marshal Bill Marks tries to identify the perpetrator who’s communicating to him continuously through texts on a secure phone line and claims to be one of the passengers. Since the film’s central mystery is hidden in plain sight, the use of white light and computer screens acts as a constant distracting mechanism from the searching camera moves by ace D.P. Flavio Labiano.
Often, these messages pop up to fill the frame with their timestamps labeled in white. In an early exchange, Marks looks down at his phone while we are privy to the words he’s reading through an enlarged graphic that becomes part of the depth in mise en scène. Overhead lights streak down both sides of Marks’ face, a common road map of sorts that leads the alcoholic cop closer to solving the puzzle.
Throughout the climactic shootout sequence luminescence comes from natural light streaming in from the cabin windows. One shot that captures Neeson’s body about to fire his weapon while flying in slow motion through the air seems more than simply an ode to John Woo’s bullet ballets. The contorted expression on his face is haloed by heavenly white light, a signifier of hard-earned resolution. By the film’s conclusion, Collet-Serra sees color as a way to frame his characters’ redemption, which stands in direct contrast to earlier images in Non-Stop which mostly favor suffocating grey or neon blue.
Within the context of Collet-Serra and Neeson’s partnership, Run All Night seems like somewhat of an outlier. Literal and forceful, uninterested in mystery and playfulness, this urban old school Western rather aggressively paints New York City in various coats of red. Feelings of rage and revenge help motivate the film's transitions, hopscotching camera movements that jump from one borough to the next. Kill shots to the head and knife wounds to the throat are all up close and personal, leaving characters drenched in brain matter.Images are expressed bluntly, the camera often nestling up to the muzzle of a .357 Magnum, weapon of choice for retired enforcer Jimmy Conlon. Neeson once again plays a drunken has-been asked to be heroic one last time when a deadly organized crime syndicate threatens his son’s life. Blood in, blood out.
The inciting incident involves Jimmy murdering the son of his former employer, Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). The two grizzled patriarchs stand off inside a restaurant from their youth. Jimmy comments on the new décor, leaving Shawn to say, “All the old places look different now.” Indeed, the bright red furniture and flowers are all new and crisp, yet the cracked crimson leather has contours comparable with the wrinkles on each actor’s face. Despite the passage of time and renovation, color still begets character.
Physical depictions of red fittingly convey the gruffness of their verbal throw down. Collet-Serra returns to the color again later immediately before the film’s most ambitious action sequence, a brazen multi-floor shoot-out set in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses. Upon receiving a phone call from Shawn, the professional assassin played by Common walks through a hallway illuminated entirely by red neon. Like the sequence involving the nurse in Unknown, his clothing and skin take on the color of the artificially enhanced lighting within the urban environment, adapting like a chameleon, which is standard operating procedure for a Collet-Serra killer.
“That’s what I was known for, details.” Bruno Ganz’s wise private eye utters these words during a pivotal scene in Unknown, and they represent exactly what makes the Collet-Serra/Neeson collaborations so dynamic. These films have a classical Hollywood sensibility in their perceived momentum, yet the tonal vitality and uncertainty hidden within the color schemes of each frame suggest a singular partnership that shares auteur status.
Neeson’s reactions to these heightened images are just as important as the images themselves. Unlike Pierre Morel and Joe Carnahan, who have each made action thrillers with the actor, Collet-Serra appears genuinely dedicated to his performer’s placement and expression in the frame, and the tension such a massive body creates when pressed into a corner. “Where we’re going, when we cross that line, we’re going together.” The credo shared by Jimmy and Shawn in Run All Night aptly conveys this organic partnership. One would imagine a conversation between Collet-Serra and Neeson going something like this: If you keep running, I’ll never stop filming.