The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Liam Neeson
Last week, we took a look at the career of resurgent leading man Kevin Costner. His latest, 3 DAYS TO KILL, seems to be an attempt to turn him into an older action hero in the mold of this week’s subject, a one-time character actor who became an unlikely action hero well into middle age.
Liam Neeson was well-regarded long before he ever did TAKEN. In the mid-nineties, he was considered as one of the finest actors of his generation, thanks to performances in movies like SCHINDLER’S LIST, MICHAEL COLLINS and more. He was a big-enough star that in 1999, he pretty much carried THE PHANTOM MENACE as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, before getting killed-off in the climax. Somewhere around the millennium his career as a leading man started to taper-off after a few not-so-good movies (including big-budget flop THE HAUNTING and GUN SHY, which went direct-to-DVD) underperformed. Rather than let that bother him, Neeson simply made the transition to character actor.
The only problem with Neeson as a supporting player is that his star power was so strong and his performances so solid that he often blew his co-stars off-screen. One much-stated example is GANGS OF NEW YORK. I love that movie, but no one can deny that the first twenty minutes – centering on Neeson’s Vallon – are by far the best. How amazing would the movie had been if it had been all about Bill the Butcher’s war with Vallon, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Neeson as the leads rather than a miscast Leonardo DiCaprio? I remember watching KINGDOM OF HEAVEN opening night in a packed theater and the audience was LIVID Neeson was killed-off in the first act. Neeson as a supporting actor worked well among a top-notch ensemble in LOVE ACTUALLY, and opposite a heavyweight like Christian Bale in BATMAN BEGINS, but it was clear that even in smaller part, Neeson was a star.
It may seem like an obvious choice now, but when Neeson played an action hero in TAKEN that was considered odd casting. Heck, Fox even delayed putting the film out a full year before burying it Super Bowl weekend in 2009. Against all odds, TAKEN, which was really meant as little more than a B-level programmer, became a sizable hit and Neeson soon found himself an unlikely global megastar. While it would be nice if Neeson occasionally broke from action hero mode to do something with a little more gravitas, it can’t be denied that even when his movies are bad (like UNKNOWN and TAKEN 2) he’s always worth watching. When he’s at his best, there’s no one better.
This one is a no-brainer.How could it not be SCHINDLER’S LIST? Steven Spielberg’s film is a riveting account of the Holocaust, and Neeson’s never been better than as German industrialist-turned unlikely savior Oskar Schindler. Spielberg and Neeson both went through pains to depict Schindler in a way that acknowledged his numerous flaws, exposing him as an opportunist and womanizer, albeit one who’s buried conscience cannot abide the horrors of the Holocaust. I defy anyone to watch his final scene – where he tearfully admits he could have done more – and not get emotional. It could make a stone cry.
To me, there’s no question that his most overrated film is TAKEN 2. Sure, the critics destroyed it, but it was a MASSIVE financial hit, despite being nothing more than a regurgitated clone of the first film. Neeson tries his best, but for some weird reason the filmmakers decided the best way to use him was to keep him locked up for most of the movie while Maggie Grace ran around Turkey lobbing granades. Such a terrible film, yet it made $376 million, so we’ll be getting a TAKEN 3. Hopefully this one won’t suck.
Neeson’s got a few underrated or under-appreciated gems in his filmography. One recent example is THE GREY. Joe Carnahan’s movie was inexplicably released in January 2011 without an Oscar-qualifying run, which is a shame. The studio sold this as a straight-actioner, which maybe wasn’t the worst idea as it made a lot of money, but it also led to this weird backlash where people whined about Neeson’s “wolf-fight” happening off-screen. As entertaining as the notion of Liam Neeson wrasslin’ with a bunch of wolves is, these folks really missed the point of the film. Carnahan made an amazing film, and Neeson is incredible.
I was tempted to put in the “I could have done more” scene from SCHINDLER’S LIST, but I already covered that in the “best performance” space, so let’s have a little fun here, shall we? In 1995, Neeson made a great Scottish Highlands adventure film called ROB ROY, which had the misfortune of coming out right around the same time as Mel Gibson’s BRAVEHEART (odd we’d get two Scottish period actioners in one year). Obviously ROB ROY isn’t half the film BRAVEHEART is, but it’s still pretty rousing in its own right. For one thing, Neeson makes for a terrific swashbuckling hero, and he’s matched by Tim Roth as his despicable rival. The movie climaxes in a superb sword-fight, where Rob tries to avenge the brutal rape of his wife by challenging Roth to a duel. Roth clearly outmatches Neeson in skill, but in the end, his swordsmanship is no match for Neeson’s brute strength and indomitable nature. If you haven’t seen this one, it’s worth checking out.
Neeson’s a busy guy these days. His latest actioner, NON-STOP, hits theaters this Friday. Before the year is out, his A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES should hit theaters, while his next big actioner, RUN ALL NIGHT, should be out around this time next year. This summer, Neeson switches gears a bit, with his part in Seth McFarlane’s A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. TAKEN 3 is also on the horizon, while he’s also due to reunite with Martin Scorsese for the long-gestating SILENCE.
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