Tom Jolliffe on Liam Neeson’s enduring appeal as an action hero…
The sheer presence and charismatic Irish drawl of a certain Liam Neeson has long been engaging audiences. He meandered as a supporting artist for a number of years, before eventually becoming something of a critical darling in Schindler’s List, and his tall stature, rugged looks and charm also made him popular with the female audience members with films like Rob Roy. Neeson had been no stranger to doing action. He had some cult success with Darkman, Sam Raimi’s enjoyably gonzo comic book film (that wasn’t really a comic book film). The aforementioned Rob Roy of course too, and a string of parts in the 80’s that required him to show his physical prowess. Aside from being a lofty 6ft4 and solidly set, Neeson among a number of grafting, masculine jobs in his younger days (as well as more intellectual work in addition, like teaching) was also an amateur boxer.
In 2008, Neeson was still a relatively popular figure in cinema. American audiences have long since adopted and accepted him as a regular big screen presence. Taken, a Luc Besson production, saw Neeson brought to a project that on paper read like a run of the mill action vehicle. In fact it was the sort of film you might have seen from a Seagal or Lundgren at the time (or indeed in their respective pomps). Neeson on paper seemed both out of place, but also deceptively perfect as a choice. Action cinema had well worn that path of more grounded action films, with a long association of casting ‘actors’ in what might snobbishly dismiss the ‘action specialist.’ The notion that a muscle bound action specialist may not be the most emotively gifted is something of a fallacy (as proven by Stallone gaining Oscar nods, or Lundgren and Van Damme receiving acclaim for Creed II and JCVD respectively). Regardless, Neeson, even well into his 50’s, was placed into a by the numbers action vehicle. Ruthless traffickers kidnap Bryan Mills’ daughter in Paris. Mills, an ex-special forces badass utilises his particular set of skills to get her back. The film was almost on the border of hitting the video shelves directly, and at a modest budget it wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise.
Taken hit, and it hit big in a way that was totally unexpected. I watched an advanced screening, some 6 months before release. It was a free screening, I liked Neeson generally and was compelled to see him in this. Taken is great (so well paced once his mission is in progress too). It’s great because it has so many bad elements (the opening 20 minutes is ludicrously hackneyed. The daughter and the ex-wife written as ridiculous and air-brained caricatures of action cliches). Yet Neeson does, what one must assume, Besson and director Pierre Morel wanted…he grounds it, makes it convincing, and provides a certain gravitas that comes from an Oscar nominated actor. Neeson sells the key moment of the film. You know…THAT phone call (relentlessly memed in the intervening years). Furthermore he was convincing as a badass. The fight sequences in the frantic shooting and cutting have dated a little (very much following the Bourne formula that everyone of the time aped). Yet, for that film at least, have enough visceral energy and Neeson involved in most of it, to make them convincing (and they sent interest in Krav Maga through the roof). So, an unexpected hit, a pop culture phenomenon, and two progressively more woeful sequels.
What happened then was that Neeson’s appeal as an action specialist boomed. Since Taken, Neeson has mixed generic action thrillers (all more or less, in that world of Taken) with some more high concept thrillers too. In fact, those high concept films like Unknown, Non-Stop and The Commuter, all directed by Jaume Collett-Serra were particularly enjoyable for how convoluted and silly they were. They hit a level of silliness and illogical plotting that has unstuck many other films, but somehow work with Serra and Neeson. There’s always a rug-pulling third act twist. Like Fincher’s similarly gonzo but great The Game, what it lacks in sense, it makes up for in style and a sincere hero. Neeson kind of repeats. In these mystery films he’s a little more of a grounded character, thrown into an elaborate mystery. There’s always, in these or indeed most Neeson actioners, some kind of phone call scene. There’s not much subtlety in the fact that they’re sailing on a wave that started with Taken, and though subsided, is still going with enough velocity to keep you on the board.
Of the large number of post Taken action films Neeson has done, one that is very underrated is The Grey. It was met with solid reviews for the genre, and a particularly standout performance from Neeson (As well as a touch of ambiguity with its great ending). It had dramatic heft and Neeson had a character with three dimensions. Art imitated life to an extent too. The film, which featured Neeson’s character unable to come to terms with the death of his wife, had a tragic reflection on Neeson’s own life, not long after the untimely death of his wife Natasha Richardson. There’s a pain etched in the characters eyes, and certainly you’d imagine is Neeson’s own pain projecting through. I felt that film, and it (and indeed Neeson’s performance) doesn’t get enough credit.
The more straight up action films like Run All Night, Cold Pursuit, The Honest Thief and A Walk Among The Tombstones are all unspectacularly but assuredly solid. They’re almost interchangeable but the consistent is how Neeson’s increasingly gruff presence, sells the routine genre fare. Ultimately, in a genre often beset with critical and commercial failure now (unless you’re Marvel et al), there’s a safe bar that Neeson more or less hits. They’re not as good as those rare brilliant ones (like John Wick) and not as bad as some of the shockers which have (ironically) been released in more regularity post Taken. We’ve seen a number of stars trying to do Taken, be it Sean Penn in The Gunman, or a large number of female lead actions like Ava, Peppermint or Kidnap that didn’t have the same sure hand (but elevated by strong performers at least).
These films are very much straight to video material, but Neeson still retains the draw to pull audiences to the big screen. For how much longer, who knows? Nicolas Cage and John Travolta are cranking out similar genre work but consigned almost exclusively to the home premiere market. Neeson is still on the wider market. The post Covid big screen landscape may have shifted and may take Neeson’s place with it. However, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’ve been a long standing action fan, and originality is a dead duck now. The hero will always take down the villain. So it is written, so it shall be. Still, with Neeson on board, there’s always something comforting about him getting the job done.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.