Liam Neeson makes an action hero soulful in the new “Honest Thief.” <ins>(Courtesy Open Road Films)</ins>

Liam Neeson makes an action hero soulful in the new “Honest Thief.” (Courtesy Open Road Films)

Liam Neeson’s primal in breezy ‘Honest Thief’

Acting veteran’s found his niche in action movies

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More bad guys mess with more of Liam Neeson’s loved ones, sparking more action and revenge, in Neeson’s new “Honest Thief,” which opens Friday in the few Bay Area theaters that are up and running.

Happily, “Honest Thief” is one of the lighter, breezier entries in his action oeuvre. It’s silly, and not without flaws, but it’s so swift and taut, it finishes as satisfyingly diverting entertainment.

The plot is easily summed up into a one-sentence TV Guide entry, but here are a few more details. Neeson plays Tom Carter, dubbed by the police as “The In-and-Out Bandit” (he hates the name), who, over the years, has successfully stolen $9 million in cash.

When Tom meets the funny, spunky Annie (Kate Walsh) and falls in love, he decides to totally come clean. He contacts the FBI to make a deal; he’ll hand over the cash in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Unfortunately, the two agents in charge of checking out his story — Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos) — decide to keep the cash and send Tom up the river. And Annie, unfortunately, gets in the way of their nefarious plan.

That’s when Neeson snarls the line we’ve all been waiting for: “I’m comin’ fer you.”

Also, it happens that he’s a former Marine and an explosives expert.

Boom.

In Neeson’s other action movies, from the massively successful “Taken” series to “Run All Night” and “The Grey,” the tone is usually a great deal more anguished and operatic.

In the featherweight “Honest Thief,” when poor Annie meets her fate, it feels glossed over, without the proper gravity. If the movie weren’t so fleet-footed, the treatment of her would seem cruel.

Fortunately, Walsh is terrific; she’s a fighter who never feels like a victim.

The movie benefits from other fine casting choices. Ramos (from Broadway’s “Hamilton” and Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It”) struggles with his conscience in an appealing way, and Robert Patrick is good as the veteran FBI man who trusts his boys implicitly.

Best of all is Jeffrey Donovan (from TV’s “Burn Notice”) as wry, unflappable FBI man Tom Meyers, who has just divorced his wife and ended up with her dog. Not quite knowing what to do with the pooch, he brings it along on his investigation; this unlikely pair elevates every scene they’re in.

The movie’s weakest link is the one-dimensional crooked lawman Nivens. Courtney is easily cast as meathead thugs, and that’s about all he can do with the role here, but at least his inherent severity helps sell the character.

The director and co-writer is Mark Williams, best known for creating the series “Ozark.” Though this is only his second feature, he proves he has a knack for “B” movie energy and economy. In an age when most movies tend to ramble on well past the two-hour mark, “Honest Thief” snaps to an end at 99 minutes.

But this is Neeson’s movie, and it’s continuously fascinating that, in his 60s, he’s become an action star. It’s also quite satisfying that he seems to have found his own niche. Few actors land on that one thing that truly connects them with audiences in such a primal way.

What is it about him that works so well with action and vengeance? Neither a plasticky muscleman or a lithe martial arts expert, he’s a big guy with a deep soulfulness. No one can look quite as wounded as he can.

In his meet-cute scene with Walsh, he’s delightfully unguarded. He handles his comic-infused flirty dialogue well, but he also seems honestly awkward. It’s the long-range transformation from this genuinely good guy into the raging, wounded warrior that packs such an emotional wallop.

Perhaps this analysis is more than “Honest Thief” deserves. But, on the plus side, in today’s unending cataclysm of dire news, sometimes a decent “check-your-brain-at-the-door” movie is just what is needed.

REVIEW

Honest Thief

★★★

Starring: Liam Neeson, Kate Walsh, Jai Courtney, Anthony Ramos

Written by: Mark Williams, Steve Allrich

Directed by: Mark Williams

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

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