The reinvention of Liam Neeson: As an action star, he's an aging, and ageless, dynamo

taken-liam-neesonImage Credit: Stephanie BranchuLiam Neeson is 58 years old, but that fact alone doesn’t render him unique as an action star. Bruce Willis, still pounding the catch phrases and leaping with a grin out of speeding vehicles, will be 56 in just a few weeks (his shaved head lends him a lean-and-mean aerodynamic appeal), and Sylvester Stallone, who anchored last summer’s the-’80s-are-back-and-they’re-still-schlocky-as-hell kick-ass hit The Expendables with his sleepy glower and still-ripply physique, is now 65. But when you watch Bruce or Sly, at least in action films, you know on some level that they’re feeding off the fumes of their glory days. Movies like RED and The Expendables play up, with a wink, how long their heroes have been around. They have to makes jokes about it so that we don’t.

By contrast, when you watch Liam Neeson chase down his daughter’s abductors in Taken, shoving people up against walls or chopping them in the windpipe, or when you watch him get all Bourne again — now puzzled, now ice-cool, now angry, now really angry — in this weekend’s hit thriller Unknown, you don’t think something like, “Wow, he moves pretty good for a guy his age.” You think: “Get the f— out of the way. He means business.” Liam Neeson is a deadly serious actor, and that’s part of what he draws on in these fast, brutal, and viciously consumable thrillers. He doesn’t do anything with a wink; he doesn’t do anything he looks like he doesn’t mean. But he’s also an actor who rules the screen — and always has — with the gruff, sturdy quickness of his reflexes, and that’s what makes him so vital and authentic and exciting to watch as an action hero. He lets every scene burn with a short fuse. He’s the thinking man’s no-frills bruiser.

I saw Neeson on stage once, in the 1993 Broadway production of Anna Christie (that’s where he met Natasha Richardson, who was then his costar — both were making their Broadway debuts), and I have never in my life seen an actor command the stage physically the way that he did. He wasn’t just tall and strapping — he loomed. It was like watching an oak tree who could act. When you possess that kind of spatial-physical power, it shapes who you are inside, and Neeson carries his Irish-hunk life-force easily yet gravely, as both gift and burden. It’s that quality of fearless, gloom-ridden indomitability that made him so memorable in both Schindler’s List and Kinsey (the two best performances of his career), and though the movies he’s doing now are pure popcorn, he has figured out a way to focus his serious, squinty-eyed urgency so that it makes acts of violence not just kicky but righteous. His wrath is crowd-pleasing.

Yet there’s a rich irony to the recent turn in Neeson’s career. When he did Taken, in 2009, it seemed a somewhat degraded move — a brutal and propulsively outlandish B movie, fueled by what might in another actor’s hands have been a pro forma Death Wish rage. Neeson, though, took the stock vengeance and ran with it. At the time, I wrote: “Throwing knock-’em-dead punches, Neeson — a hulk with jackknife limbs — makes Jason Bourne look like a man of tired reflexes. He pierces the underworld of sex trafficking so efficiently it’s as if he’d set out to nab Osama bin Laden…and found him in 36 hours.” Audiences loved him in it. They loved his ageless, cutthroat agility, and also the don’t-mess-with-me conviction that he brought to lines like: “I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for people like you…I will look for you. I will find you. I will kill you.” In that moment, an action star was born. And Liam Neeson’s career was born again.

He’d had one previous great action role — as the kilt-wearing Scottish medieval-swordsman hero of Rob Roy (1995), a much better movie than Braveheart — but now, after years as an A-list actor who has never really been a pop movie star, he had crossed the line. He was jaunty and fierce and feeling his new what-the-hell mojo in The A-Team, even if audiences weren’t truly inspired to turn out for it (they should have), and now here he is in Unknown, a Hitchcock-put-through-the-pulp-juicer identity-crisis thriller, which is more than just an action film — though not, in the end, a very good movie. (I agree completely with Lisa’s review.) Yet if anything will end up driving its success, it’s that Liam Neeson now has almost a pact with the audience. He will look for that kick-ass action sweet spot. He will find it. And he will kill.

So what do you think of Liam Neeson’s transition to action hero? Do you want to see him do more movies like Taken or Unknown? Or do you think that he’s now sacrificing brain for brawn? What’s your all-time favorite Neeson performance?

Comments (112 total) Add your comment
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  • Michelle

    I think his movies suck now

    • belladonna

      Why in the world would he care what a very young and immature person think’s about his movies!!!

      • Kendall

        I have to disagree with the article though, he had action roles before Rob Roy – he was in Batman Begins and kinda taught Bruce Wayne how to fight

      • harry

        LOL!!!

      • chocolateislove

        I agree with Kendall; Batman Begins was what introduced me to Liam Neeson in an action role. And he was pretty awesome in it.

      • UmReally

        Kendall, Rob Roy came out 10 years before Batman Begins.

      • Eunice

        I truly wish Hollywood didn’t have the double standard it does when it comes to males versus females in the action genre. (Well, in general, really) A man can be a stud and an action star at 58, while a woman, once she is deemed not sexy anymore (old), is never seen as a viable action hero. When I see Stallone, Arnie, Willis, Ford, and now Neeson, I wonder if female action stars like Angelina Jolie and (to a lesser extent) Milla Jojovich and Kate Beckingsale will ever get offered action roles once they reach say, forty, and therefore “not sexy” anymore.

      • Pittner

        @Eunice
        Females get action roles when they are in their 20s and 30s. No men get great action roles when they are in their 20s. It’s the opposite later on when men get those roles in their 40s and 50s while women will never get them.

      • m.

        Hellen Mirren?! She kicked a** in the “Red”.

      • shavereview

        Eunice, I’d offer ANY of those women action at age 40+ : )

      • B-

        @Eunice. Lena Olin, Sigourney Weaver, Helen Mirren.

    • mark

      I think it’s good that he makes the occasional mindless action movie. a) it’s a job and he needs to make money, b) these movies are fun and entertain a wide range of audiences and c) with a larger fan base from movies like this, maybe more people will show up to his movies of more artistic merit

      • Seth Johnson

        re. male/female double standard: i’d love to see Angelina Jolie keep it up for a few decades.. she was awesome in Salt: not in the “T&A” sense, but in the Jackie Chan sense!

    • Le Japanese HIROSHI

      (Hello Michelle, NEESON is a more talented middle-aged actor methinks.)

      - -

      @ Owen,

      - -

      Thanks for a good read.

      - -

      If my mem’ serves me far too well, DARK MAN is the first flick I did watch in which NEESON was starring. Perhaps, for its action-oriented features and the film context in which his head was mostly covered so that viewers found it hard to discern stunt men in action and the Irish star himself; myself so young, and that I’d watched mostly both his films and movies in 80s and 90s, virtually having dismissed him ever since &c – I think I might take him for granted.

      - -

      However, “divulgation” came in this specialty film in which he co-stars vs the talented J. Moore and the beautiful A. Seyfried; despite a limited onscreen time (for a good reason), he shines.

      - -

      And he’s seemingly doin’ fine in action flicks, too (unless u guys r doin’ this, on-demand of someone up in the air); I think I’ll check out both TAKEN on DVD, and UNKNOWN.

  • rutanya

    I think this once great actor has become boring and conventional..dont agree with you at all.

    • belladonna

      Liam Neeson is an actor for intellectuals and drama/suspense lovers. He has only ripened with age and I think it is nice to see movies that make you THINK as well as give you all the other elements in a great movie!!

      • medusa

        Agree with Belladonna. I’ll always see a Liam Neeson movie.

  • Sammie

    What gives guys? it’s his life and helps him cope with his wife’s death. I’m cool with it.

    • Esaul

      Thank you. I more than agree.

    • WhitneyD

      Exactly! Honestly, I think that the most entertaining thing about his movies like this (though I’ve only seen Taken and A-Team) is that he does elevate the movies from what it could have been to something more. He’s clearly enjoying himself, and is doing a damn fine job acting. It could be worse- most actors choose horrifically bad comedies to slum in when they want to “let loose.”

    • alex

      I think it’s strange to assume this is how he copes with his wife’s death. Don’t you think it would be more cathartic to throw yourself into a role which demands an emotional commitment and has some artistic merit? Having said that, I see nothing wrong with doing the occasional action film.

      • Meagan

        I don’t think it’s that strange. If my spouse died so unexpectedly, in an accident that could have been avoided, I’d be mad as hell and want to kick a little ass myself.

      • Joe

        Heck, for all we know his wife’s death made him more concerned about his family and mortality, so he makes “popcorn” movies to insure his kids get a bigger inheritance when he dies himself.

      • Karen

        Dude, he just said in an interview that to cope with his wife’s death he threw himself into his work. So yeah.

      • Le Japanese HIROSHI

        @ Alex,

        - -

        In fact, it’s more or less from his own words during an interview as well.

      • Caryn

        He might be sick of all the emotions he’s had to deal with the past few years so doing something “mindless” takes you away from the exhaustion of feeling sad.

      • DTO

        Alex,
        He said exactly that in ESQUIRE recently.
        I like Neeson as the serious, cerebral actor he usually is, but I think it’s great that he’ll do a fun one every now and then. Similarly, I was getting tired of Ethan Hawke’s coffee-bar-and-poetry-books Gen-X spokesman routine by the end of the 1990s, but when he started starring in shoot’em-ups like TRAINING DAY, etc., I found myself becoming a fan again. On the contrary, Sean Penn only seems to accept roles in movies that are practically guaranteed Oscar buzz now and I find his grandiose, egotistical self-seriousness tiring despite his talent. He started out as Spicoli, for Pete’s sake, and would occasionally do a pulpy yarn like U-TURN (not that the latter was a great movie, but it did entertain me). Serious, award-calibur movies are absolutely great and I’m not trying to diss them, but at the same time, I get enough stuffed-shirt self-seriousness in academia.

      • mark

        To everyone who is citing the Esquire article, I read an excerpt and I know he said he threw himself into his work– at the time he was filming Atom Egoyan’s ‘Chloe’ in Toronto. Just the type of more ‘artsy’ film I was talking about (one that involves a little more of an emotional connection to the character and plot).

  • Sue Sylvester

    It takes guts to compete with furniture.

  • madge

    I think he’s great. He’s believable in everything he does.
    I even loved him in the A Team.

    • chattypatra

      Exactly! He is a master actor who can make any role believable. If he’s in a movie, I’m intrigued about what he saw in the script.

  • E Wolke

    I think Neeson does what he damn well pleases, and if you look, he’s having a good time and providing for a comfy retirement. He’s a very fine actor and I’m sure we’ll see some meaty stuff from him now and again, but good parts are hard to find.

  • Ellen

    What a fun piece to read, and now it’s made me decide to see the LiamActionTrifecta of Taken, A Team and Unknown. Thanks Owen!

  • maboohai

    Considering the intellect of the above respondents , I’m not surprised by the answers. However, I have a new hero to enjoy, so more movies like “Taken”, if you please.

  • AG

    I loved him in Taken and would look truly forward to those types of films!

  • Jessica

    Taken was such an entertaining movie, and he was terrific in it. Rob Roy is also one of my favorites. Although my heart goes out to him as he is dealing with the loss of his wife, I am glad to see this new side of him with these last few films, and hope to see more.

  • hobo

    Good article, but you are out of your mind if you think Rob Roy was better than Braveheart.

    • Rob Grizzly

      Agreed. Rob Roy is a fine film, but not nearly as sweeping, epic or romantic as Braveheart.

  • BadMemory

    Rob Roy was great – but hello, doesn’t anyone remember Darkman? That was one of Liams first “action” movies

    • Miranda

      Darkman is my favorite

      • frank

        Yea, Darkman was my favorite too. You want to see a great action scene, the part in Darkman where he is on the roof, and running away from the explosions all around him, one of the best action sequences in any movie he has done yet,. Liam is the best!!

    • Sue1

      Loved him in Darkman, and everything since. He is that rare breed of actor that brings class to every role and film he’s done.

    • Snsetblaze

      Wasn’t he also in a Star Wars movie – as a Jedi.

      • chattypatra

        Not just any Jedi. He was Obi-Wan Kenobi’s master (teacher), Qui-Gon Jinn.

    • jezoebel

      DARKMAN was the first film I saw him in. He kicked ass then and still kicks ass now.

  • Gerry Conway

    I’m happy he’s found a way to make some serious money for his kids — that’s what Laurence Olivier was up to in the 70s & 80s when he turned to shlock for a hefty paycheck. (“Clash of the Titans” rang the bell for both of them, after all.) The great thing is, Neeson can continue to do fine dramatic work as well as pick up a paycheck for some action flicks. He’s like the Angelina Jolie of late-middle-age male stars, someone who’s fun to watch kick ass because it’s so incongruous. And he appeals to young and old alike — half the people at the packed theater where I saw “Unknown” Friday were over 60, and when’s the last time you saw *that* at a high-energy action film?

  • Jamaica

    The whole point of being an actor, is getting the chance to play a whole slew of different characters in movies of every genre, otherwise, actors might as well go work in a factory. I’m cool with Liam Neeson doing action films now and again, so long as he doesn’t let some great dramatic roles get away from him, that would be a shame, but in any case it’s his life, and his career. I hope he does what makes him happy. He’s a great actor, I’ve been watching him since “Darkman,” and he always brings something special to a picture. God bless him!

    • Carla in Houston

      Word!!

    • sunsetsnow81

      Very true! Love him being so versatile, which is a true mark of an actor. I loved Taken but his best has to be Schindler’s List.

    • Strepsi

      I love his face. He reminds me of that director’s quote of Javier Bardem, to the effect that he has the “face of a minotaur and the soul of a poet.” He has these rough-hewn features, and soulful eyes. ANd an amazing voice (that has been well used in CGI many, many times). The only thing he needs to do is tone down the hairpieces — his toupées are becoming distracting — like, your hairline does not start descending after age 50!

  • grandpajoe

    I saw UNKNOWN – and he was awsome – he is super! You negelected to mention his great work in Schindler’s List!

    • Kate

      Ah yes, Schindler’s List, that great action movie of Neeson’s on par with the A-team.

      • Joe

        It was so cool when he ripped and shirt off and bellowed “You are on Schindler’s list… Of a$$ses to kick!!!”

      • Le Japanese HIROSHI

        LOL with Kate (I know you’re not dissin’ Schindler’s List.).

      • Becca

        I guess you haven’t seen “Schindler’s Fist” then or “Schindler’s Pissed”

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