There’s undeniable, primal appeal in watching the unexpected second phase of Liam Neeson’s career in motion: originally renowned for his intricate, character-driven performances, Neeson has spent the last 5 years crushing bad guys with one swing of his gigantic fist in a variety of amped-up situations. He took on an army of sex traffickers in Taken, memory loss and Diane Kruger in Unknown, and was chosen to play the 21st century incarnation of John “Hannibal” Smith in The A-Team. Then there was Zeus in Clash of the Titans, which gave Neeson the opportunity to act mad and spout super-camp lines like “Release the Kraken!”
It’s arguable that Neeson, now 60, has always been a candidate for mindless action fare: at a towering 6 feet 4 inches, his nose chiseled and bent, the Irish-born actor looks like he’s been through the blender a fair few times and stepped out with his dignity still in tact. There’s the appeal in Neeson as action man.
This year alone, Neeson has appeared in 5 movies, all action movies (or variants of), and all of which have been successful at the box office. In The Grey, which was pegged humorously by fans as “Liam Neeson vs. CGI wolves”, Neeson can be glimpsed amidst the white Alaskan wilderness with broken bottles taped to his hands, practically daring a pack of vicious, snarling dogs to come at him. That’s badassery defined, of course, and there’s no denying the simple pleasures gained from seeing absolutely anybody willing to take on their enemies in such a bizarre fashion. But is Neeson destined to do this kind of schtick forever? What happened to Liam Neeson the actor?
It all started with Taken, of course, which became a certified cult classic in the months following its cinematic release when it came out on DVD with new scenes of added violence. Although Neeson had appeared in a few action-orientated films before Luc Besson cast him as former-CIA operative Bryan Mills, there was a kind of induced irony in watching him charge around Paris, killing everybody who stood in his way and not giving a single solitary shit, given his associations with more serious performances. The joke wasn’t on Neeson, of course, because it was something of an inspired revelation to see Oskar Schindler taking down an army of bad guys in graphic detail. But nowadays this easily cloned and unstoppable Neeson character seems to be verging into a territory reserved for jokes that have run their course. Neeson is a good action star, but he’s also a much better and more honed actor capable of a lot more.
Taken 2 hopefully marks the beginning of the end with regards to this period, which I admit, has been a throughly enjoyable one. A generic action thriller in every sense, Taken 2 perfectly showcased how odd trends like these can fall flat. Neeson is 5 years older than he was in the original flick, and it shows: Bryan Mills is sluggish and wrinkled now, Neeson far less capable of handling action sequences with the same gusto he injected in previous efforts. Taken 2 was pretty much universally derided by both critics and fans, and that wasn’t necessarily Neeson’s fault: there was no spark to the movie, nothing special about it, and almost nothing for its actors to do.
Which is why Neeson needs to get his teeth back into the meatier roles. Consider his wonderful, note-perfect performance as Oskar Schindler, which came endowed with such masterful levels of sorrow and melancholia and honesty – the picture truly might not have worked without him. And what about Alfred Kinsey, the famous professor who came to revolutionise the way we think and talk about sex, who remains one of Neeson’s most complex and rounded characters to date. It’s not that Liam Neeson should steer away from action vehicles entirely; it just seems unfortunate that a bunch of generally middling thrillers should be the work he is remembered by.
Is it time for Neeson to shake things up a bit, then? I think so, before he finds the joke is suddenly on him. In times of retrospect, it seems an even bigger shame that he didn’t find himself cast as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming biopic as was originally rumoured. Now that would have been a star turn worthy of the man.
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