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.’
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).