In the Land of Saints and Sinners (Ireland, 2023)

March 26, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
In the Land of Saints and Sinners Poster

Since Liam Neeson began his action star career with Taken, most of his play-for-pay films have been depressingly generic. Although far from a revelation, In the Land of Saints and Sinners rises above many of those. Perhaps that’s because the screenplay is grittier than usual and Neeson seems more invested than has often been that case. It could also have something to do with the backstory, which is set during early days of The Troubles, the darkest period of recent Irish history. This time around, Neeson isn’t playing a hero. He’s an amoral assassin seeking penance and finding only bloodshed. He’s also surrounded by a trio of well-regarded actors: Colm Meaney, Oscar nominee Kerry Condon, and Oscar nominee Ciaran Hinds.

In the Land of Saints and Sinners opens with a chilling prologue set in 1974 in which IRA terrorist Doireann McCann (Kerry Condon) and several confederates plant a car bomb that kills two children and their mother. The group of four go on the lam to the coastal town of Glencolmcille, where Doireann’s sister-in-law lives. Also there is assassin Finbar Murphy (Liam Neeson), who has decided to call it quits in pursuit of personal redemption and a quiet life. Doireann’s arrival interferes with that. After turning his mantle over to his overeager protégé, Kevin (Jack Gleeson), Finbar decides to take one more life: Doireann’s brother, Curtis June (Desmond Eastwood), who has been abusing a young village girl. This act puts him on a collision course with Doireann, who wants nothing less than a life for her brother’s life and has both the will and the firepower to achieve that aim.

There are times when things get too sentimental – the material with the little girl is overdone and manipulative and the usage of a cat is painfully trite (the only thing worse would have been a dog). Director Robert Lorenz (a longtime Clint Eastwood collaborator) does a good job of generating suspense but his handling of smaller, character-based moments is uneven at best. Neeson is at his weakest when trying to project regret and sincerity. (The exception being a quiet scene toward the end with Neeson and Hinds having a conversation in a pub.)

The movie doesn’t delve too deeply into The Troubles; this isn’t a political movie in the same way that many productions set in ‘70s Ireland are. The Troubles form the tapestry of the backstory and give Doireann and her cadre a reason to behave as they do. Finbar is apolitical; he seemingly will kill anyone, regardless of their affiliation, as long as he is paid. Once he has renounced his profession, he acts out of what he perceives to be a moral obligation. Kevin, on the other hand, has become a hitman because (a) he is good at it, and (b) he likes it.

Neeson generally does what Neeson usually does, which can be good or bad, depending on how you view it. The fierceness of his countenance is belied by the softness of his voice. Kerry Condon is a force of nature. To the very end, Doireann is stubborn and unrepentant. Jack Gleeson has come a long way from King Joffrey; had I not recognized the name, I never would have known the actor. Another Game of Thrones alum, Ciaran Hinds, is underused. The only logical explanation for his agreeing to appear seems to be that he and Neeson (who are good friends) wanted to make something together.

Whatever faults the screenplay may have, and its tendency to ramble is chief among these, the final confrontation is ripe with tension as Finbar confronts Doireann in the middle of a crowded pub. In the Land of Saints and Sinners is a clear, unqualified improvement over such recent Neeson-led thrillers like Retribution and Blacklight. And, although one can argue that his once-prodigious talents are wasted in cash-grab projects of this sort, at least the movie provides 90 minutes of entertainment rather than turning into a by-the-numbers slog.

In the Land of Saints and Sinners (Ireland, 2023)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2024-03-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1