How Liam Neeson Became Your Dad’s Favourite Action Hero

How Liam Neeson Became Your Dad’s Favourite Action Hero

This week the growling, six-foot-four-inch rogue that is Liam Neeson returns to screens in The Commuter to do what he does best. These days, that means beating the crap out of bad guys in a cartoonishly insane action yarn that the star somehow plays straight. That’s what he does. Put him in a leather jacket, give him a coffee and a cell phone, and watch someone get hurt. I love it. You love it. It’s the only thing that you and your father-in-law can agree on. Everyone loves watching Liam Neeson kick butts around the world and somehow, despite the fact that the man is 65 years old, he shows no sign of slowing down his butt-kicking barrage. As a matter of fact, the guy just might be the biggest and most enduring name in the genre these days who doesn’t also go by ‘The Rock.’

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Frances McDormand and Liam Neeson in Darkman (1990)

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, few ever could have imagined things would go this way. For years, Liam Neeson was a grizzled leading man who specialized in dramas and prestige pictures. I mean, this is Oscar Schindler we’re talking about for godsakes. For the first solid decade of his career, you were far more likely to watch him get awkward in a Woody Allen movie or fall in love with your mom’s favourite star than throw a punch. Sure, there were a few outliers. Sam Raimi did cast him as Darkman in the director’s deeply underrated gothic comic book romp, but that was just Raimi being typically ahead of his time spotting Neeson’s badassery and the appeal of superhero blockbusters decades early. Later, George Lucas cast him in The Phantom Menace, but that was more to lend the movie an Alec Guinness-esque, British thespian presence (ditto Christopher Nolan who cast him in Batman Begins so that you wouldn’t guess his character’s true nature). Until 2009, Liam’s action experience was minimal and almost accidental. He was a star, but not a mainstream one. More of a critical darling. Not the type of guy you’d call to crack skulls on demand. So how did this happen? How did Liam Neeson take over the action genre? Hey, calm down and settle in. I’m about to tell you. That’s the whole purpose of this article, dummy!

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Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List (1993)

Liam Neeson was always a professional brooder. In the biopic phase of his career (Schlinder’s List, Rob Roy, Michael Collins) he was the guy that people called on to be stoic and serious, making a career out of pained glances off camera and deep wells of emotion. Of course, by the mid-2000s he was aging out of leading man roles as he settled into his 60s and started taking more parts for cash. One of these was an action movie cheapie that he shot in Europe and assumed might even end up going straight to DVD. It was a little movie by Luc Besson’s Eurotrash action empire. Besson was another 80/90s film icon aging out of relevancy. After directing some critically acclaimed and delightfully bizarre action flicks like The Professional and The Fifth Element, he essentially gave up directing to produce cheapo action-sploitation flicks starring the likes of Jason Statham and Jet Li that were essentially designed to make a little money by masquerading as low-budget Hollywood action flicks around the world and then make big bucks on the then lucrative DVD market.

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Liam Neeson in Taken (2008)

One of these trashy Besson flicks was a little project called Taken about an ex-CIA agent with (say it with me) a very particular set of skills that he used to save his teen daughter from the international sex slave market. It was pure sleaze, rooted in revenge and pulp and nonsense. To give the movie gravitas, Besson took a risk and offered the lead role to Neeson. The actor was struggling at the time and took it as a quick payday, assuming no one would ever see the embarrassing B-movie on his otherwise prestigious resume. Oh, how wrong he was. Thanks to having an actor capable of actual gravity and pathos at the centre of a trashy action flick, the movie struck a chord with cynical 2000s audiences excited by a hero who could express their angst and rage. The movie was an unexpected worldwide hit, endlessly quoted and gifted on father’s day before becoming a cable classic. Suddenly at 56, Neeson was an unexpectedly bankable action star and he seized the moment.

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Famke Janssen and Liam Neeson in Taken (2008)

All goofy jokes aside (don’t worry there are plenty more of those coming once I get back into the goofy action flicks), Liam Neeson’s transition into action movies came from a very pained place of personal tragedy as well. Two months before Taken hit screens and made $226 million, Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson died suddenly and unexpectedly in a ski accident. The actor was obviously devastated and by his own accord, decided to lose himself in work rather than dwell on the pain. He went from not appearing on screen in the two years before Taken to signing onto 3-5 movies a year and working and a feverish pace. Since that happened right when Taken hit, well that meant a string of action movies were suddenly available to him.

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Liam Neeson in Clash of the Titans (2010)

Suddenly, Liam Neeson seemed to be in every other movie featuring explosions and teeth kicking that hit screens. They varied wildly in quality and content. He could be hamming it up as Zeus in the unfortunate Clash Of The Titans one week and then experiencing deep existential angst between punching wolves in the face in the rather brilliant The Grey the next. He was part of the delightful A-Team reboot and the unfortunate Battleship blockbuster. He found a bomb hidden in a briefcase filled with cocaine in Non-Stop and extended Taken into a trilogy. The action flicks just kept coming and most of them hit, one after the next. In an era where Sylvester Stallone tried (and ultimately failed) to extend the careers of 80s/90s action movie icons with the Expendables franchise, it was Liam Neeson who unexpectedly proved that retirement age action heroes could be a thing. They were movies that action movie nostalgics with greying hair could enjoy alongside youngsters who loved watching grandpa kick scumbags in the nuts. Somehow it worked and worked so well that the name Liam Neeson inspires thoughts of action movie nuttiness now, not Oscar-bait drama.

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Liam Neeson in The Grey (2011)

Show me a moviegoer these days who doesn’t appreciate Liam Neeson and I’ll show you a liar. He’s an actor who has proved his chops with the pretentious art house crowd and has explosion lovers squealing with joy in the aisles. Most of all, no matter what the job, he takes it seriously. Neeson has now starred in some of the most absurd and ridiculous action movies ever made, yet he always dives in with sincerity and a straight face. He plays every role like a great drama, somehow making his campy dumb dumb action flicks even funnier through sheer commitment. He’s an action star who can handle the butt-kicking without ever losing sight of the drama or humanity.

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Liam Neeson in Taken 2 (2012)

If you ever wondered why Harrison Ford disappeared before his recent Star Wars revival, well that’s ’cause why wouldn’t you offer any action role for a 60something to Liam Neeson instead? He’s cheaper, easier to work with, and he’ll actually take the job. He’ll take any job and class it up while blowing up the car behind him. It’s unlikely even Liam Neeson could have seen this coming, but he has become one of the great big screen tough guys. He’s someone who could sit at a fictional bar with the likes of Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood and not seem remotely intimidated. That’s a good thing. We need those aging badasses in movies. The fact that the contemporary equivalent of “that old tough” can actually act and is capable of expressing emotions other than pain and pride? Well hey, I guess you’d call that progress. Keep kicking butt Liam, this weekend and every other. We need you out there classing up the action genre. No else one has your particular set of skills (zing!).


Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!

Want to see more videos? Subscribe to our YouTube channel and check out the First 15: Star Wars Battlefront II, Sonic Forces + Episode Shadow, and  Super Mario Odyssey!

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The Commuter (2018) Review: Spectacular Stupidity

The Commuter (2018) Review: Spectacular Stupidity

Not all stupid B-movies are created equal. Some are just dumb and bad. You know the type, even if it’s hard to think of specific examples since they tend to fade from memory so quickly. Other dumb B-movies are made by people smart in enough to play into the stupidity. You know, those special B-movie makers with a sense of humour who recognize that no matter what audiences will giggle at their dumb dumb action spectacle. The least they can do is lean into those laughs and make the silliness deliberate. Jaume Collet-Serra is one of those directors. He turned his Blake Lively Vs. A Shark movie (The Shallows) into a live action Looney Tunes cartoon, transformed the generic spooky kiddie movie, The Orphan, into a black-hearted farce, and has been Liam Neeson’s most consistent collaborator in the campy portion of the great actor’s career. Previously, the duo made Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night together. If you’ve seen and appreciated how knowingly silly those movies are, then you’ll know what you’re getting into with their latest flick, The Commuter. Fortunately, it’s also one of their best dumb dumb action flicks and a goddamn delight for anyone who adores giggles and face-punching.

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As hard as this might be to believe, Liam Neeson stars as a grizzled ex-New York cop in The Commuter. The emphasis is on the “ex.” He’s been out of the cop game for a decade, working at an insurance company to support his loving family and commuting into Manhattan every day. We see how long he’s been commuting during an absolutely beautiful opening credit sequence in which Jaume Collet-Serra weaves together jump cuts, match cuts, time-lapse photography, and every other technique he can think of to condense a year of routine into a few glorious minutes. After that, Liam has a bad day. He’s fired from his job and while drinking away his sorrows is reunited with his pitying former partner (Patrick Wilson) and boss (Sam Neil) to establish a potential buddy and villain. Then he rushes onto his commuter train while struggling to decide how to break the bad news to his wife. Something crazy happens next though. He’s approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga), who offers ol’ Liam $100,000 if he can use his old detective skills to hunt down a single unknown passenger on the train and plant a tracking device on them. Obviously, this woman is up to no good and has a collection of baddies on board to ensure that no good continues. Liam’s stuck in a trick predicament on a claustrophobic train. Let the action and suspense begin!

The Commuter (2018) Review: Spectacular Stupidity
Liam Neeson and Vera Farmiga in The Commuter (2018) – image provided by Studio Canal.

You may have worked this out already, but The Commuter is very much a throwback to the type of high concept action movies of the 90s. It could easily have been the sequel to Speed (or with a minor rewrite, even a direct sequel to Neeson and Collet-Serra’s own Non-Stop). The type of premise that’s simple enough to sell in a trailer and insane enough to hinge a whole action movie around. Sure, the script requires massive suspension of disbelief and piles on heaping helpings of stupid, but thankfully this filmmaker knows exactly how to make the silliness fly. Jaume Collet-Serra doesn’t pretend for a single second that this movie takes place in reality. Everything is heightened. The colours are too bright, the camera moves in impossible ways, every performance is a little arch, every line of dialogue is a little goofy. The filmmaker goes out of his way to establish that this doesn’t take place in our world, but a separate dimension. A place where silly action movies take place. A place where Nicolas Cage would feel like a human being. A place where explosions neatly send heroes flying right where they need to go. A place where a character could be evil or a hero. A place where those who love silly action nonsense like to call home. Best of all, the filmmaker does it all with a wink and a nudge.

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There’s not a second of The Commuter where it isn’t clear that the filmmakers are acutely aware of how insane everything on screen feels and they play right into it. Almost any moment could be taken as a joke if you choose. The suspense still makes hair raise on the neck and the action still gets the heart pumping. It’s just that the filmmaker is unafraid to embrace the ridiculousness of the enterprise for extra fun. That’s really what you want from this sort of thing and clearly, everyone involved is having a ball. The cinematic technique is on overdrive and the actors are all shooting over the top. Well, except for Neeson of course. As usual, he treats it like one of the prestige dramas that kicked off his career and never leans into the big dumb joke that is the big dumb movie. That, of course, only makes it all play better. By playing it completely straight, he just makes the whole thing that much sillier and funnier, like one big deadpan joke.

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Liam Neeson in The Commuter (2018) – image provided by Studio Canal.

The Commuter is a big dumb action movie for people who love big dumb action movies. Yes, it plays like a campy goof for those who enjoy such things, but it can also just feel like a big goofy ride if that’s all you want in your action movies. It ain’t art, but it is fantastic trash. The type that doesn’t insult the intelligence of those who like giggling at these sort of things. Is it a masterpiece? Obviously not. Regardless of the irony involved, this is still just a B-movie. It’s not ambitious. It’s just goofy and disposable entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that though. Especially when it’s done this well. Hopefully Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson keep this stupid streak going for as long as they can stand each other.


Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!

Want to see more videos? Subscribe to our YouTube channel and check out the First 15: Star Wars Battlefront II, Sonic Forces + Episode Shadow, and  Super Mario Odyssey!

Don’t forget to tune in every Friday the Pixels & Ink Podcast to hear the latest news, previews, and in-depth game discussions!

Never miss when new CGM articles go out by following us on Twitter and Facebook!

CGMagazine is Canada’s premiere comics and gaming magazine. Subscribe today to get the best of CGM delivered right to your door! Never miss when a new issue goes live by subscribing to our newsletter! Signing up gives you exclusive entry into our contest pool. Sign up once, you’ll have a chance to win! Sign up today!

The Grey (Movie) Review

The Grey (Movie) Review

I’m not sure at one point in his career that Liam Neeson transitioned into a grizzled action star, but I’m glad it happened. I suppose Taken was the big movie that kicked off his ass-kicking career, but early warning signs can be traced all the way back to his heavily scarred work in the underrated 1990 faux comic book movie Darkman.

Read moreThe Grey (Movie) Review