‘In the Land of Saints and Sinners’ Movie Review: A Character Drama Disguised as an Action Movie

Liam Neeson might have one of Hollywood’s most exciting career trajectories. From his Oscar-winning work in the 1990s (Schindler’s List), his career pivoted in 2008. Neeson’s hit action film Taken turned him into a different kind of actor. Flash forward twenty-two years, and he has morphed into an action star. That delivered universally enjoyable cinema for audiences over the years. Now, after so many action movies, some have grown tired of the “tough guy” persona Neeson exhibits. This makes each of his films have a newfound air of hesitation surrounding them. Each makes audiences ask, can he ever break out of the tough guy routine? In the Land of Saints and Sinners hopes to break that new and slightly frustrating trend. 

The film follows ex-assassin Finbar Murphy (Neeson), who lives in an Irish coastal town called Glencolmcille. After a wrongful murder, Finbar finds a shot at redemption going against IRA terrorists led by Doireann (Kerry Condon). That premise sounds like the typical Liam Neeson action movie fare on paper. If audiences go in expecting that, they will be sorely disappointed with the results. The finished product is much deeper and more character-driven than some may expect.

Liam Neeson in Ireland in In the Land of Saints and Sinners
Liam Neeson in Ireland in In the Land of Saints and Sinners. Image courtesy of the filmmakers.

A Contemplative Take on the Action Star on In the Land of Saints and Sinners

The film’s biggest strength is its more contemplative approach to the material. Finbar is someone looking to repent for his trespasses. That sort of world-weary action star has been seen in numerous films. It’s a tiresome trope that needs a fresh and varied perspective to be thematically engaging. One detail helps In the Land of Saints and Sinners stand out from what came before. That detail involves a cultural specificity akin to a film like The Banshees of Inisherin

Set during the troubles in 1970s Ireland benefits the film in two ways. The first involves the underlying tension of the story. Everyone in this sleepy seaside town has to look over their shoulders. They know of dangers that could happen at any time due to the constant news, creating regular unease. Simultaneously, the town and its characters feel authentic, delivering a sense of realism. Finbar is given a moment with each and every one of them. It makes viewers care about them and fear for their outcome in the battle ahead. This sense of community starts with Neeson’s committed and arguably subdued performance. He delivers the character with a subtle ferociousness. 

Finbar wants to live a quiet, fulfilling life, including escaping the assassin world he has lived in. In theory, that kind of character can feel hopelessly cliched and uninteresting. However, Neeson’s warmth helps it stand out amongst his previous action-hero roles. That warmth is delivered via his interactions with those in the town. Whether the town police chief (Ciarán Hinds), Finbar’s neighbor (Niamh Cusak), or a fellow loose cannon assassin (Jack Gleeson), they feel like real people. That’s thanks to their interactions with Finbar, which give them a similar warmth.

That also translates to Doireann (Condon) as the leader of the IRA members terrorizing the town. These elements work together like a teapot residing on a slow simmer throughout. Viewers know it can’t last forever and will reach an explosive boil once Doireann arrives. It’s a risky gamble that pays off as the film progresses. It helps deliver a journey that has a real emotional catharsis, particularly for Finbar, throughout. That journey may unfortunately not be enough for some viewers, compared to others. This can be blamed on the screenplay by Mark Michael McNally and Terry Loane. The film’s regular “character build-up” can sometimes be mistaken for languid pacing.

Niamh Cusack and Liam Neeson in In the Land of Saints and Sinners
Niamh Cusack and Liam Neeson in In the Land of Saints and Sinners. Image courtesy of the filmmakers.

Atmosphere and Character Over Explosions on In The Land of Saints and Sinners

At 106 minutes, the meat of the story takes time to present itself. This involves building out Finbar’s world. While the action is in this first portion of the film, it is more intermittent, with the focus instead on characterization. This can severely deter the diehard Liam Neeson action movie fans. Instead of something like Taken or Non-Stop, the story takes time for the real action to present itself. This includes delving into the villainous characters and making them sickeningly despicable. Besides Kerry Condon, every other villainous role feels like a caricature, starting with her fellow group of IRA members.

Any action movie needs to establish the villains as worthy threats. In the Land of Saints and Sinners undeniably accomplishes that task. The problem is that it delivers that ambition in an admittedly overbearing way. This includes certain vile acts that simply feel unnecessary to see or hear. Viewers know the villains are flawed from the film’s first scene, clearly establishing their menace. As the plot gets put into motion, one incredibly vile act (no spoilers) lights the fuse of violence. It’s Neeson’s more grounded lead performance that makes those moments bearable. Such a combination could make some forgive the more brutal sequences with the villains.

In the Land of Saints and Sinners promises one kind of movie from its trailers. Going in expecting that movie will leave some sorely disappointed. While the action is present, it is not delivered as expected. Instead, the focus resides on establishing a mood and an engaging lead protagonist. The precise sense of its location and time period apply a level of humanity to the story. Those willing to go along with those choices could appreciate how the film is unlike previous Neeson action movies. It’s the unfortunate marketing that could make the experience underwhelming for some. Undeniably, In the Land of Saints and Sinners shows that Liam Neeson can subvert expectations even in his action-star career stage.

Liam Neeson in In the Land of Saints and Sinners
Liam Neeson in In the Land of Saints and Sinners. Image courtesy of the filmmakers.

In the Land of Saints and Sinners will be in theaters on March 29, 2024.

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