Liam Neeson, despite being a seemingly warm, gentle soul, has convinced the world he can be an action hero. Who is buying this, and how did it happen?
It shouldn’t have happened like this. When I was young, Liam Neeson was a respected actor. Having just been nominated for best actor for Schindler’s List in 1993, he followed up with Nell in 1994 and Rob Roy in 1995. He worked on a few projects after that until making Star Wars: Episode I (1999), K-19: The Widowmaker and Gangs of New York (both 2002.) I suppose you could argue that some of these were more action-y than the roles of his contemporaries, Rob Roy gave us this, after all:
But it should be noted that while yes, he did just grab the blade of the sword that would have killed him, he was also crying moments earlier. This is not the stuff of an action hero. Back then, Liam Neeson was basically a poor man’s Daniel Day Lewis.
Neeson was always around, making movies — he was a fine actor but not one of the greats of the time. He was neither unlikable nor particularly inspiring. In fact, when you said “Liam Neeson” to me, my first thought would have been that you can’t even compare him to Jon Voight1
He kept moving with Love Actually (2003), the quintessential Christmas rom-com and Kinsey (2004) a well-received drama/biopic about the famous sex researcher. Liam Neeson is a tall, soft-spoken, seemingly gentle teddy bear of a man. He wears thick wooly sweaters, eats five-grain bran muffins and sips decaf tea after seeing his kids off to school. In 2005 Liam Neeson was a middle-to-late-aged woman’s sexual fantasy. Nothing exciting, nothing dangerous — that’s Neeson in a nutshell.
Yet somehow he was cast as Batman’s mentor/nemesis in Christopher Nolan’s caped-crusader reboot Batman Begins (2005)2. I guess it could be argued that we have Nolan to thank for Neeson’s almost unimaginable late-career action period as Neeson’s role in Batman Begins was apparently just convincing enough to land him the lead in Taken (2008) and that’s where things really changed.
When I saw the trailer for Taken my initial reaction was one of laughter. I thought to myself: “Liam Neeson in an action movie? What is he, broke? Who’s buying that?” But you know what? Taken was pretty good, far better than my low expectations, that’s for sure. And maybe there was a certain genius to casting Neeson — sweet, fatherly, everyman Neeson — as a father pushed to his limits when his daughter is kidnapped.
Except, of course, that this wasn’t Mel Gibson in Ransom. Neeson’s character Bryan Mills is supposed to be a former CIA Operative who, luckily, is well equipped to handle just such a situation, and that’s a plotline I just cannot buy into. Neeson as a former CIA employee who pushed paper at Langley for 30 years before retiring gracefully into a life of golf and Saturday nights watching CBS with his high-school sweetheart wife? That I would have believed.
Oh well. If that performance was an outlier in Neeson’s career, a little unbelievable detail like that could be overlooked.
It wasn’t an outlier. Since the success of Taken in 2008, Liam Neeson has been Bryan Mills or a reasonable facsimile six times! Unknown (2011): A post-coma Neeson is the victim of identity theft and no one believes him. The Grey (2011): Neeson v Wolves! Taken 2 (2012) Again. Non-Stop (2014): Neeson shooting people on a plane. A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014): PI Neeson helping someone else who’s loved one was kidnapped. Taken 3 (2014): Again, again. Throw in Run All Night due out in 2015, where Neeson is an aging hitman protecting his estranged family, and we can make it seven times.
In addition to those seven Taken or Taken-like titles, Neeson has also somehow managed to make two Clash of the Titans movies, Battleship, another Batman flick in The Dark Knight Rises and the A-Team. Neeson is now a full-fledged action star for whom people go to the theatres in droves to see. How is this possible?
Am I the only one who notices that Neeson seems neither scary nor tough? Neeson’s success highlights the dearth of bona fide action stars currently available to us. With the golden age of terrible3 action movies now at least 15 years behind us, and the stars of those movies barely clinging on with the Expendables franchise, Neeson is the sole actor consistently filling the void.
But that doesn’t make it right.