Liam 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?