How Liam Neeson Became An Action Hero.
By Jack Bottomley.
Not all that long ago Liam Neeson was an actor who rose to prominence as the star of some strong dramatic works, most notably Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996) and Billie August’s version of Victor Hugo’s enduring revolutionist fable Les Misérables (1998). However, before that, Neeson cut his teeth in bit parts in a variety of films, with his most impactful roles coming in future cult films like Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990), Peter Yates’ Krull (1983) and John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) (a film many future headliners appeared in). Point being, when looking across this man’s body of work, and despite dipping his toes into action here and there, you never got the impression that Neeson was an “action star”. And yet, years later, when the actor is now in his early 60s no less, Liam Neeson has undergone a transformation and we don’t mean he has started wearing more leather jackets.
In a career renovation reminiscent of Leslie Nielsen post Airplane; Neeson has become associated with the Action/Thriller genre. In fact the novelty of seeing him in such films has passed, now the novelty is not seeing him in them. And yet, fatigue has not set in, far from it. Neeson’s billing as an action star has led to a string of movies, each taking decent box office cuts and some receiving favourable reviews. So to this point, how has Liam Neeson gone from Drama to harmer? And what is it about this recent influx of films that gets audiences going? Well, ahead of this Friday’s release of Run All Night, Showfilmfirst decided to go back and assess the action and whether it was fate or just “good luck”.
As previously noted, Liam Neeson has been in action before (see the helicopter sequence in Darkman) but had far from what you would call a badass image. Then again, what does one do to acquire this image? Well aside from chugging a meat and pizza shake (ala Arnie in End of Days); being a badass at the flicks has changed throughout the years. In the 70s it was usually the guy with the best firearm (Eastwood, Bronson), in the 80s it was the ones with the muscles in places most of us don’t even have places or a mastery of one liners (Willis, Stallone, Schwarzenegger). However, in the 90s it was generally the ones with their sense of cool (Cage, Reeves) and in the noughties it was generally the realistically skilled specialists (Damon, Craig’s Bond). However it seems that as we move on nostalgia constantly pops up (as evident by the continual expansion of The Expendables franchise) and in many ways Liam Neeson’s ascension to modern day action man illustrates this point. He has established an image for himself not because of muscle or cheesy phrases per say but he certainly has come to be a hybrid of the grizzled gunslinger of the 60s and 70s, mixed with the realistic operative of modern day. This was reflected in the very film that marked Neeson’s eruption into the genre, Taken.
In 2008 Pierre Morel’s potentially controversial abduction Action/Thriller Taken, backed by Luc Besson, was released to mixed-verging on good reviews but huge audience response. Neeson himself has openly said he expected it to go straight-to-disc and was stunned when it became an international hit (earning over $226 million at the box office) but perhaps everything happens for a reason. In the film Neeson played ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills, a man who goes all out to save his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) from sex traffickers in Paris. Mixing a simple story of man on a mission to save his family, with kinetic action and fast-paced thrills (and yes, slightly dubious politics) Taken saw Bryan Mills become an overnight film icon. Thanks in no small part to that infamous phone call scene that, through Neeson’s gravitas-laden commitment, immediately established the Northern Irish born actors new “don’t mess with me” image.
At 6’4’’ Liam Neeson is no small man and yet, aside from his great turns as Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn in George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) or Ra’s Al Ghul in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) (in many ways a precursor to his later Thrillers success), few mainstream films really pushed him as a star befitting of his own action-packed niche. And yet, since the barnstorming success of Taken, Neeson’s career has received a shot of adrenaline. In fact Taken is now it’s very own franchise, with a sequel following in Taken 2 (2012) and this past January’s Taken 3, both helmed by Olivier Megaton. Indeed a further instalment is said to be possible (surely now it’s just bad parenting!) and while critics have been unimpressed, audiences have lapped the series up as evident by the franchise’s worldwide box office takings of nearly $900 million. However, that is but one avenue in this star’s new career direction, this late career boom has been further exemplified (and far better received) in his work with directors like Joe Carnahan and Jaume Collet-Serra.
His recent collaborations with Serra are perhaps most pivotal, as this Friday’s release of Run All Night, marks Neeson’s third film with the director and thus far the results have been consistently entertaining. First was Unknown (2011), an identity crisis centric, European set, paranoid Thriller in the vein of Roman Polanski’s Frantic and second was last year’s aviation hijack Thriller Non-Stop. Both films were reliant on mysterious narratives and characters and both, allowed for Neeson to play to his newly acquired set of skills (skills he has acquired over a very long career, skills that…ok you know the rest). One only hopes the third time is a charm again for Run All Night, which looks to be a furiously more action-driven mob-like film, than the star’s previous entanglements with the Spanish director. Although seeing Neeson Square off against Ed Harris immediately raises the game.
Outside of this work though, Neeson has continued his rough and tough roll with starring roles in various action/Thrillers. As well as the aforementioned, Neeson’s appearances in films like Paul Haggis’ Anything For Her remake The Next Three Days (2010), Hasbro adaptation (don’t laugh) Battleship (2012) or the remade Clash of the Titans series, have denoted his mighty screen persona. Most significantly though, have been his parts in recent films by director Joe Carnahan. Neeson appeared in Carnahan’s 2010 reboot of 80s TV series The A-Team, as the group’s cigar chomping leader John “Hannbial” Smith but the big one was really his leading status in Carnahan’s brutal survival Thriller The Grey (2012). Based on a short story by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers (who co-wrote this feature length version), the film sees Neeson cast as John Ottway, who is one of a few survivors of a plane crash and must brave the harsh, cold, Alaskan wilderness and fight off the advances of hungry grey wolves. The Grey, otherwise known as “that film where Liam Neeson punches wolves” (ironically the man has saved a dog in real life) was critically well received and uncompromising in both its mood and themes of natural balance and philosophy. The film is a violent and gruelling example of the persona this star has come to take in the modern day. Even recent comedic films like A Million Ways To Die in the West (2014) and The Lego Movie (2014) have seen Neeson have self-depreciating fun with this very image.
Still why have these films been so successful? Why Neeson? Why Now? Well, in many ways a comparison can be drawn to actors like Harrison Ford in that, Neeson’s style of acting is eminently watchable. Where other (lets not name names here) action icons acting ability has been shall we say…limited, this Academy Award nominated talent is capable of excelling in parts and plots that could border on implausible normally. Critics have picked up on this very fact and some have suggested that Neeson’s reliable performances are what keep audiences coming back to his action roles. In this day and age, superheroes are the new action idols but it is very revealing that Neeson has emerged as the new retrograde action star.
Lucky? Perhaps but all it took was that one career move and Liam Neeson’s ability has ensured the rest. Audiences keep on coming to every new picture and possibly it is down to the fact that many of these films have a throwback quality; Non-Stop being evocative of 90s films like Executive Decision and Air Force One and A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014) having that gritty 70s detective procedural atmosphere. As cliché as it is to say, even the snobbiest cinemagoer is given something to latch onto and it is hard to say (although Taken 3 was seen as more of a blatant studio cash-in) that any of the aforementioned films here could be called abject duds in the same capacity as say Collateral Damage.
Liam Neeson has found a vein in which to tap and inject his later career with energy and has spoken honestly about his age pertaining to these parts, admitting his surprise at his modern image. However, as he said himself, “I’m very fortunate to get to play these characters, at this stage in my life… I love doing it, and I’ll keep doing it as long as they keep sending me scripts”. Perhaps age is indeed just a number; it certainly seems to be the case for the action icons of the genre’s ripped, violent and testosterone-fuelled glory days, many of whom are still booting and shooting baddies like there’s no tomorrow. Long story short, as unexpected as it might have been, Liam Neeson has embraced his modern day billing (like those he smacks about onscreen) with both hands and his resulting rise in popularity just goes to show that fantastic actors are capable of doing anything. Or as some might say, you can teach an old dog new tricks… not that we would ever call Mr. Neeson such a thing, we like our jaws precisely where they are, thanks very much!
Run All Night is in UK cinemas from Friday 13th March, 2015.