There's only really thing a late-career Liam Neeson action movie has to do, which is show Liam Neeson engaged with the business of doing action. Not a high bar, and yet somehow, Honest Thief does not succeeded in clearing it. The subjective, simplistic word "boring" is the single worst one for any critic to ever use about any art object, because it doesn't really mean anything, but here we are: Honest Thief is extraordinarily boring, surely the most boring of all the thrillers that Neeson has headlined since redefining his career with 2008's Taken, and a steady contender for the worst-made on top of it (though 2014's Taken 3 at least makes that latter one a competitive race).

Neeson is, of course, the honest thief, Tom Dolan of Boston, Massachusetts. He's known to the media and the police as the In-and-Out Bandit, such a monstrously terrible name that it's even made fun of in the dialogue, and in this he has stolen something in the vicinity of $9 million over the years. But one day, while moving a portion of that money into a self-storage unit, everything changes. For he can't keep himself from flirting the woman working the desk at the storage facility, Annie Wilkins (Kate Walsh), and she flirts right back, and as we flash-forward a year, they're so very much in love that Tom has decided that if he's going to be the man he wants to be for her, he needs to purge himself of his sins. He reaches out to the FBI and offers to turn himself in, along with every last penny he stole, on the condition that he receives a reduced sentence, to minimise the amount of time he must abandon Annie. And while agents Sam Baker (Robert Patrick) and Sean Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan), running the In-and-Out Bandit case, assume he's just the latest in a line of cranks, he's able to convince their underlings, agents John Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Ramon Hall (Anthony Ramos), that he's legit, and sincere. He's able to convince them so well, in fact, that Nivens decides to steal all the money for himself and frame Tom for Baker's murder, putting the honest thief on the run from the dirty cops. And of course, Tom's one likely ally, Annie, is not at all happy to learn that the man she's about to move in with has been lying to her this whole time, meaning that not only does he have to stay ahead of the police, he also needs to salvage his relationship at the same time.

There are two ways to play this, I think. The one that was never going to happen would be to lean into the Kafka-esque black comedy of a man who wants to atone for his sins being unable to navigate the corrupt bureaucracy that he needs to atone through, and it would require a top-to-bottom rewrite. So that leaves the Liam Neeson Action Thriller route: lots of car chases, gun battles, Neeson punching Jai Courtney in his supremely forgettable face, a big threatening speech so Neeson gets one chance to remind us that he is, in fact, an excellent actor. Somehow, this proves to be beyond the means of Honest Thief, its director Mark Williams (making his second feature, after the 2016 Gerard Butler vehicle A Family Man), and his co-writer Steve Allrich. The film is astonishingly light on action sequences, or any kind of thriller material at all; an unexpectedly high percentage of its running time (it is, thankfully, not a long film, at 99 minutes) is made up of people talking to each other in offices or over the phone. Talking very angrily, to be clear: everybody is shouting and snarling at everyone else, and making threats, and all that sort of thing. But one cannot talk so angrily that it takes the place of even a moderately good chase scene, in a film where the talking was never going to be all that good in the first place.

At is best - and, for that matter, at its worst - Honest Thief is pure cops-and-robbers boilerplate, with exactly the conversations and plot beats movies of this sort will have, and that's neither good nor bad. It is possible to imagine this exact film working fairly well with strong, interesting characters, and the reason it is possible to imagine is that Neeson himself is giving us an incongruously good performance. Setting aside the film itself, this is the best he personally has been in a B-grade thriller in the better part of a decade, at least. Having a well-defined sense of guilt and a desperate desire to love and be love gives him some genuine meat to work with, and he turns in one of the more openly emotive performances he's ever given in this mode. Unfortunately, having an unusually good Neeson performance really only ends up serving to exaggerate the degree to which nobody else in the cast is even a little bit tolerable. Courtney being a big flat vanilla nothing with a frozen sneer of contempt on his face in lieu of a personality comes as no surprise, of course, but he's not even the worst member of the cast: Walsh doesn't make any attempt to do more than inhabit her underwritten role as The Woman In A Dude Movie, and Ramos uses his character's moral ambivalence as license to snivel and whine. Once Robert Patrick's character was killed, I quickly got to the point where I found myself eagerly looking forward to Jeffrey Donovan coming back onscreen, so we could get some decent acting, and when Jeffrey Donovan is the second-best member of an ensemble, I mean, Christ.

So no good characters. That leaves the option of good action, or at least sufficiently loud and violent action with lots of nice explosions. The problem here isn't that Honest Thief's action sequences are "bad", as that they don't really exist at all. The film is dominated by people talking and expositing, and only very infrequently does it wake up for a quick, anonymous shoot-out or fraction of a chase scene, none of which are ever put together with any tiny bit of visual interest or inventive blocking. It's just dull, the whole thing: straightforward and dull as can be. The movie feels like the blankest sort of programmer, designed to fill a market niche without any sense of why a viewer might actually want to sit through it beyond the robotic interest in getting this year's dose of Neeson shouting. That's apparently enough for a film to meagerly grab the #1 slot at the box office during the doldrums of a pandemic, but it's certainly not enough for anything else.