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Movie Review

In ‘Widows,’ an all-star cast finds trouble in Chicago

Liam Neeson and Viola Davis in the heist movie “Widows.”
Liam Neeson and Viola Davis in the heist movie “Widows.”(TIFF)

Think of “Widows” as “Ocean’s 8,” with half the number of female crooks and all of them dressed in black. It’s the first feature Steve McQueen has directed since “12 Years a Slave” (2013). He cowrote the script with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl,” 2014). The cast includes Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall, who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as lick it into submission. “I don’t roll over for anybody!” he happily bellows. OK, Bob, if you say so.

That’s a lot of talent, both behind the camera and in front of it. This might be one reason “Widows” feels overstuffed. Another is that it’s based on a 12-part British TV series from the ’80s. Bumper cars are meant to collide, but getaway cars aren’t. “Widows” has a lot of figurative colliding — a lot of pretty laughable implausibility, too. All movies are phony. What, you think beautiful people doing ugly things on a screen is real? Some movies are phonier than others. “Widows” is one of those. The always thin line between a twisty plot and a silly one gets crossed about an hour in.

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For that first hour, it’s the twistiness and setup that count. McQueen’s direction is very assured: the framing, the tracking, the strong sense of a sure hand in control. The movie has a sumptuous look. Luxury Chicago, hard-times Chicago: Doesn’t matter, everything looks great. If only the script were half as good. This is the kind of movie where someone (all right, it’s Davis) has to declare with a straight face, “If something goes wrong, you’re on your own.” OK, Viola, if you say so.

She plays the wife of a massively successful crook. How massive? Davis and her husband (Neeson) live in a penthouse apartment with a view of Lake Michigan. She says at one point that he’s never had a problem in 30 years of pulling off jobs. The most recent of them nets $2 million. That’s a lot of no problems. During said job, a van with the crooks in it goes up in flames.

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Davis comes upon a plan for Neeson’s next heist. Hey, why can’t she and the accomplices’ widows do the job? It’s all very empowering. Or maybe not: “We have a lot of work to do,” Davis says to her crew. “Crying isn’t on the list.”

Only two widows are willing. They’re played by Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki (the most likable character in the movie, if also the least believable). So Rodriguez’s baby sitter is enlisted. This really is beginning to sound like a comedy, isn’t it? “Widows” does have some laughs, but they’re pretty much by the by. Cynthia Erivo, who’s so good in “Bad Times at the El Royale,” plays the baby sitter with understated high style.

Right there, that’s plenty for a plot. Except that there’s also this special election for alderman. Duvall’s character wants his son (Farrell) to succeed him. Farrell is looking more and more like Mitt Romney. Maybe he should be running for the Senate.

But wait: The district lines have been redrawn to make the ward majority African-American. For reasons known only to his accountant — or maybe just Flynn and McQueen — a local crime boss (Henry) whose operation makes him millions thinks that being elected alderman can bring in even more cash. Apparently, there’s Chicago corruption — and there’s Hollywood’s idea of Chicago corruption. Did anyone think to hire Rod Blagojevich as a technical consultant?

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This all makes no sense, but it does keep things rattling along. Some of the rattling can be pretty vicious, thanks to the crime boss’s brother/enforcer. He’s played by Kaluuya, who gets to vent some of the tension built up during his star turn last year in “Get Out.”

A big switcheroo — no, that’s not quite right: A Big Switcheroo — takes place. It’s the first of three. A small subplot involving a police shooting of a young black man is a throwaway, and in its throwaway-ness kind of offensive. It’s meant to explain the state of Davis and Neeson’s marriage. Maybe it’s also meant to comment on the state of US race relations. OK, Steve and Gillian, if you say so. Trying to be more than just a heist movie, “Widows” manages to be something less.

★ ★½

WIDOWS

Directed by Steve McQueen. Written by Gillian Flynn and McQueen; adapted from a Lynda La Plante television series. Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 129 minutes. R (violence, language throughout, some sexual content/nudity).


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.