For some, he’s an Oscar nominee, thanks to his superb performance in Schindler’s List.To others, he’s the larger-than-life presence in such blockbusters as The Phantom Menace, Batman Begins, and Clash Of The Titans.
Since 2008, though, Liam Neeson’s taken an unexpected turn into action-thriller territory; now often seen wearing a leather jacket, a gun in his fist and his knuckles bloodied, Neeson’s found a new audience as a hard-hitting macho man.
But while some might look askance at films like Taken or Unknown, it’s worth pointing out how effortlessly Neeson pulls it off. Other actors of a similar vintage have tried to make tough-guy movies of their own – see Sean Penn’s The Gunman, John Travolta’s From Paris With Love, or Kevin Costner’s Three Days To Kill – and the results have been less than successful. Somehow, Neeson manages to evoke toughness and dignity in just the right measure – he can kill people with his massive hands, but he manages to retain a noble air while doing it.
To celebrate a decade of Neeson’s leather jacket action-thrillers, then, here’s a look back at both the best and worst of them…
Otherwise known as: Neeson does Paris
Predictably, this was the film that kicked off Neeson’s whole latter-career action-thriller cycle. Sure, the actor had proved his physical credentials decades earlier – the cult superhero flick Darkman‘s a prime example – but more often than not, he was lower on the bill in thrillers where bigger names got to do all the fun stuff. In the fifth and final Dirty Harry film, The Dead Pool, for example, Neeson was cast as a schlock movie maker named Peter Swan – leaving Clint Eastwood, by then aged 58, to charge around shooting people.
A generation earlier, Taken might have starred Charles Bronson, and indeed, the leading role originally went to Jeff Bridges; when he dropped out, Neeson took on the role of ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills – an otherwise mild-mannered American who goes absolutely ballistic when his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) is kidnapped by evil sex slavers.
Whole essays could be written about the disquieting undercurrents in Taken‘s story, written by producer Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, but director Pierre Morel keeps things rattling along, and Neeson makes an otherwise forgettable action hero into a charismatic figure. Besides, for all the violence and bloodletting, this is really a story about a father’s love for his daughter, and how it truly can conquer all – which is something nice to think about while Neeson downloads the whole of France’s national power grid into a goon’s testicles.
The A-Team (2010)
Otherwise known as: the one where Neeson pretends he’s George Peppard
Admittedly, The A-Team‘s a bit of a different kettle of fish from the other films on this list, in that it’s a big, would-be blockbuster rather than a medium-budget thriller. Still, we thought we’d mention it, since it’s another movie that shows off Neeson’s action credentials in the 2010s. Neeson does a good George Peppard impression as Hannibal, the leader of a group of mercenaries-for-hire, and to be fair, you can’t fault the casting elsewhere, either – Sharlto Copley was the perfect choice to play Howling Mad Murdock.
If only somebody could have come up with a better plot: to the best of our recollection, the whole thing boils down to the hunt for a pile of printing plates. The A-Team‘s middling profits meant that Neeson never got to play the cigar-chomping Hannibal again, more’s the pity.
Otherwise known as: the one where Neeson has an identity crisis
Neeson’s in slightly more understated territory here, in his first of several collaborations with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Sera. Neeson lends his softly-spoken charm to the role of Doctor Martin Harris, a science-type-person who, during a trip to Berlin, gets involved in a nasty car accident, wakes up, and discovers there’s another guy (Aidan Quinn) walking around pretending to be him.
Even Harris’ wife – played by January Jones, who seemingly never blinks – doesn’t seem to recognise him. Is Harris losing his mind, or is there something more sinister going on? As you may have gathered, it’s the latter. Collet-Sera’s direction’s workmanlike, but he does a good job of evoking the frostiness of Berlin in winter, and evidently relishes the few jabs of action on display – Neeson’s plot-triggering car crash is far more elaborate than it needs to be.
Unknown also establishes a trademark flourish in Neeson-Collet-Sera team-up movies: they start off plausible enough, in a vaguely Hitchcockian sort of way, until everything spins way over the top at some point around the middle. In Unknown, the plot goes in a direction akin to the classic Total Recall – thankfully, the great Frank Langella appears to explain to us what’s going on.
Oh, and if you thought that a scientist was an unusual role for Neeson, don’t worry: after about an hour, he puts on a leather jacket and starts smashing stuff up.
The Grey (2012)
Otherwise known as: the one with the wolves
The only problem with Neeson’s deep dive into the daft action-thriller genre is that some genuinely great movies get swept into the same category. Case in point: director Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, which was widely sold as “Liam Neeson punches a bunch of wolves”. In reality, it’s much more intelligent than downbeat than that – if anything, the tone and style is closer to Andrei Konchalovsky’s 1985 classic, Runaway Train.
Neeson plays John Ottway, an expert marksman who carves out a gloomy living by shooting wolves the wolves that wander too near a drilling facility in Alaska. About to head home, Ottway’s plane crashes, leaving he and a group of other survivors stuck in the snow, starving, and surrounded by wolves. The performances, particularly from Neeson and Frank Grillo, are roundly excellent. Carnahan’s direction is mesmerising and full of frosty atmosphere, and his wolves a formidable threat.
Beneath all the survival and daring, The Grey‘s a poetic meditation on the inevitability of death, and how we march on regardless in the face of it. But yeah, if you want it to be, it’s also about Liam Neeson strapping some tiny glass bottles to his fists and punching some wolves in the face.
Taken 2 (2012)
Otherwise known as: the one where Neeson kills people in Turkey
When Neeson signed on for the original Taken, he’d casually assumed it would go straight to DVD and disappear shortly afterwards. Instead, it became one of the biggest hits of his career – in the midst of a growing financial crisis, maybe audiences were looking for a short, sharp thriller about a good guy righteously beating up bad guys.
Producer and co-writer Luc Besson clearly recognised what the public wanted, because he was careful not to change the formula too much for the sequel, which essentially reruns the same Bryan Mills versus Albanians plot to the middle of Istanbul. The twist this time is that, as revenge for the deaths in the original Taken, the gangsters kidnap Mills and his wife rather than his daughter.
Hogtied and locked up in a dingy basement, Mills hatches a daring escape attempt, which leads to one of the most laugh-out-loud action gambits of the past few years: Kim (Maggie Grace again) on an Istanbul roof, throwing hand grenades in an effort to figure out her dad’s location. Every time Mills hears an explosion, he uses the sound to triangulate his position in relation to his daughter’s. Thankfully, there are only about five cops in the whole of Istanbul (and they’re corrupt), so Kim’s never arrested for damaging the city’s roof tiles.
Director Oliver Megaton (Hitman, Columbiana) takes over for this one, and he has far less feel for action than Pierre Morel; the rather numb fighting sequences aren’t helped by the new 12A rating, either, which effectively turns Mills’ terrifying neck-breaks into what look like tender bear hugs of death. That’s the law of diminishing returns right there.
Otherwise known as: the one on the plane
After a busy 2012, Neeson appeared to take a bit of a breather the following year, before reuniting with Jaume Collet-Sera for another harebrained thriller, this one set on a transatlantic flight. In Non-Stop, Neeson plays a character named Bill Marks, though by this point, we almost wonder why anyone involves bothering to give these guys different names.
In virtually all the films we’ve discussed so far, Neeson has broadly the same hairstyle, the same accent (sort of Irish-American), and the same leather jacket – which must surely get a bit itchy and sweaty on a long-haul flight, but we’ll overlook that. The only thing that really changes is the vocation: here, Neeson plays an air marshall who, through a haze of free in-flight alcohol, tries to defuse the threat from an anonymous terrorist.
Like Unknown before it, Non-Stop has a pedestrian opening and an absolutely batty second half. There’s a magnificent bit where Neeson prises open a briefcase and, beneath a false lining discovers – gasp! – a stash of cocaine. Later, Neeson delves into the bag of cocaine, and discovers that it’s really a false lining for – gasp! – a timebomb.
It’s a moment so brilliant that we almost wish it kept going: Neeson breaking open the bomb to discover a little briefcase inside it. He opens that, finds some cocaine inside, then a teeny, tiny bomb inside that. And so on, for 100 minutes.
But we digress.
The supporting cast is a solid one – look out for Lupita Nyong’o, who’s wasted in a role of a flight attendant, plus Scoot McNairy and Juliane Moore. Non-Stop has just about all the cliches of an old disaster thriller – this is, in essence, a retooling of those old Airport movies – but with the added appeal of Neeson shouting and shooting at people. The villains’ motivations for all the terrorist shenanigans are also completely off-the-wall.
A Walk Among The Tombstones (2014)
Otherwise known as: Neeson versus kidnappers. Among tombstones
At first, A Walk Among The Tombstones looks like a replay of The Grey: a smart, well-made thriller that accidentally got swept up into a pile with all the daft thrillers Neeson also happens to make. Neeson plays a guilt-stricken ex-cop who’s hired to discover the whereabouts of the kidnappers who snatched and murdered the wife of a drug dealer played by Dan Stevens.
It’s all very taut and nicely handled by writer-director Scott Frank, though by the time the suspense gives way to shoot-outs in the third act, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we’ve seen this kind of thing before. Not that there’s much wrong with A Walk Among The Tombstones – in some respects, it’s better constructed than most of the other films here. But with its sombre tone and no-frills plot, the lack of outrageousness makes this latest Neeson joint a rather forgettable one. Mind you, compared to the next entry, Tombstones is a stone-cold classic…
Taken 3 (2015)
Otherwise known as: the one where Neeson runs around cheap locations in Los Angeles
Or alternatively, the one where Luc Besson formally ran out of ideas. For this tepid sequel, Besson and Olivier Megaton stage a cut-price reworking of The Fugitive, where a weary-looking Bryan Mills goes on the run after being framed for the murder of his estranged wife. Yes, if you thought Famke Janssen was underused in the last two Taken movies – where she could’ve easily kicked as much backside as Neeson, if you ask us – then the actress is at least put out of her misery here.
Neeson charges around in his leather jacket and breaks things, but the 12A rating again rears its head, meaning the assorted gun battles and fist fights are even more toothless than they were in the previous movie. It’s ironic, really, given how instrumental Taken was in launching Neeson’s late action career, that he’d wind up being better served by the genre films outside this franchise.
If you’re looking for an example of how poorly served Neeson was by these last two Taken films, look at the knife-and-fork editing sequence above. The sheer number of cuts renders the action almost incomprehensible; all we could think about, as Neeson despatches yet another wave of thugs, is how many perfectly decent bottles of booze got blown up.
Even the script lets things down this time around, with the original’s quotable lines (“I will find you, and I will kill you”) now replaced by a daft plot involving bagels and cream cheese and Neeson mumbling, “I don’t know who, and I don’t know why, but I’m going to find out.”
Fortunately, Taken 4 hasn’t so far materialized, otherwise we’d probably have Bryan Mills saying stuff like, “New phone, who dis?”
Run All Night (2015)
Otherwise known as: the one where Neeson runs all night
Now this is more like it. Neeson finds himself on more enjoyable ground with his third tie-up with director Jaume Collet-Sera – yet another film that goes all batty in the second half. To begin with, it’s straight-laced thriller stuff: Neeson’s an ex mob heavy in New York, who has an intimate relationship with a whiskey bottle, a strained relationship with his son (played by Joel Kinnaman), and then ends up on the wrong side of his old crowd of gangsters.
There are some great scenes between Neeson and another mobster, played by Ed Harris, and the serious tone and Irish gangster trappings sort of reminded us of a latter-day State Of Grace – an underrated 90s thriller starring Gary Oldman and Sean Penn. The plot completely goes out the window, though, when a hitman played by Common shows up. With his stony expression and talent with firearms, Common basically turns Run All Night into The Terminator with Irish gangsters – and believe it or not, that’s a recommendation.
With a slightly higher budget than previous movies, Collet-Sera stages some confident action scenes, while actors like Nick Nolte and Vincent D’Onofrio help Neeson bring a bit of gravitas to the whole thing.
The Commuter (2018)
Otherwise known as: the one with Neeson on a train
Besides the leather jacket, the accent and the centre-parting, there’s a common factor among these Neeson action thrillers: just how much devastation he can get away with in each scenario. So far, we’ve seen him cause havoc in Paris, Turkey, Los Angeles and New York, and engage in some mid-flight antics that almost result in the destruction of a passenger jet. Each time, he’s hailed a hero.
In The Commuter, it’s the New York rail system that gets the Neeson treatment. Here, he plays a cop-turned insurance salesman who’s drawn into a tangled conspiracy on his train ride home. Some mysterious villains – seemingly led by Vera Farmiga – try to tempt Neeson with $100,000 in return for tracking down a person on the train known only as Prin. When Neeson tries to resist, the baddies resort to more threatening tactics.
We won’t say too much more than that, though it’s probably sufficient to say that this is another Jaume Collet-Sera film, so all bets are off after the 45 minute mark. One of our favourite moments involves Neeson, armed with an electric guitar, versus a bad guy holding an axe.
Neeson’s now 65, so it remains to be seen just how many of these punchy-shooty films he has left in him; given just how much fun the last decade has been at times, though, we’re hoping he isn’t ready to put his leather jacket away just yet.
Up next? Hard Powder, an action thriller based on the Norwegian hit, In Order Of Disappearance. In it, Neeson will play a snowplow driver seeking revenge for the death of his son. Villains of Norway, be warned.