.Beat the Devil: ‘Blacklight’ and ‘Exorcist Vengeance’ are a waste of time

Blacklight is not insultingly stupid. Liam Neeson’s latest action vehicle, piggybacking on the success of his Taken franchise and its spinoffs, seems to make a point, a questionable one but a point nonetheless: Never blindly trust the FBI.

Our guide through the labyrinthine world of the national security apparatus in the age of political polarity is FBI Special Agent Travis Block (Neeson), a particular type of American everyman. By his own admission, Travis suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He can’t walk into a building without mentally mapping escape routes, and his apartment is worrisomely neat and orderly. He also has a guard-dog relationship with his little granddaughter, Natalie (Gabriella Sengos), who takes after Grandpa by counting doors and windows. Veteran G-man Travis—actor Neeson is 69—is in the habit of dropping everything, even the hot pursuit of a bad guy, to go check on Natalie at preschool, just in case. “Paranoia is healthy,” he observes.

It’s a good thing Travis is so nervous. A squad of rightwing renegade security spooks is stirring up serious trouble in D.C., to the point of assassinating a liberal female congressional candidate (played by Mel Jarnson)—who looks and talks very much like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—via a “traffic accident.” At the same time Dusty (Taylor John Smith), another disgruntled federal operative with different views, is secretly violently disrupting the death squad’s mission. The director of the FBI (Aidan Quinn), no fan of “PC protesters,” pooh-poohs any conspiracy theories about the case. However, an enterprising reporter (Emmy Raver-Lampman) is inclined to believe Dusty’s story. Likewise the perennially alert Travis. So, halfway through Blacklight we can already snuggle down with our popcorn, assured that Travis is going to save democracy.

Director Mark Williams—maker of Neeson’s Honest Thief and The Marksman—and writers Nick May and Brandon Reavis aren’t much interested in sissy stuff like irony and subtlety. The clichéd musical cues are annoying—please give the audience credit for figuring out plot turns without signaling them ahead of time. And much of the dialogue is distressingly cornball. We’re all in favor, to a degree, of Neeson portraying righteous head-banging granddads—it beats the Bucket List approach. But Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, among many other aging action heroes, exhausted most of the commercial possibilities of the senior avenger market long ago. Blacklight is suitable only for beginners or forgetful Neeson shoot-’em-up fans.

Exorcist Vengeance, on the other hand, is insultingly stupid. It features Hungarian-native/Charles Bronson-lookalike Robert Bronzi—original name: Robert Kovacs—in what one of its screenwriters unashamedly labeled “Death Wish meets The Exorcist meets Knives Out.” If only co-directors Scott Jeffrey and Rebecca Matthews had a sense of humor, or a vivid-enough imagination, the spectacle of an imitation Bronson, in grim-avenger mode, tag-team wrestling with a blood-vomiting would-be Linda Blair might be worth a few cheap laughs. Instead, we get thrifty boredom.

Catholic priest Father Jozsef (Bronzi) gets called in to investigate suspicious deaths in a family. He suspects demonic possession, but there’s also a mysterious series of more worldly murders to deal with. That’s why he packs a handgun along with his rosary and holy water. Bronzi, a terrible actor, reminds us of Tommy Wiseau, star of the midnight-movie favorite The Room. Father Jozsef is not flamingly communicative, and his accented vocal delivery often obscures his dialogue, what little there is of it. To make things worse, the sound engineering is not up to the original Exorcist standards, and the entire movie is shot in soft focus, possibly to hide cut-rate production values.

So, is Robert Bronzi channeling Bronson? Or Wiseau? Or both? One thing’s for certain: Bronzi works for a lot less money than Liam Neeson. Maybe they could switch roles. It might be fun to see Neeson as a conflicted priest performing grisly exorcisms. Brendan Gleeson did it in Calvary (2014), why not Neeson?

‘Blacklight’ opens in theaters Feb. 11. ‘Exorcist Vengeance’ is available digitally and on DVD.

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