Liam Neeson has had, to put it brusquely, a weird career in film. He's been in countless classics and also some movies remembered primarily for their terribleness. But the strangest part of his career to me is no doubt his current and ongoing late-career action movie rennaissance, which has its latest chapter with the release of this weekend's airplane film “Non-Stop.” I've wracked my brain and haven't been able to think of another well-respected, “serious actor” who has made this kind of sudden transition in their 50s and 60s to butt-kicking action movies.
Let's go back to the early 1990s for some perspective. By this point Neeson had established himself as a respected dramatic actor, leading into his most visible period of success in award-winning films. Sure, he'd dabbled in more physical roles like 1990's “Darkman” with Sam Raimi, but most of his roles were of a more dramatic nature.
In the next 10 years, he appeared in the following: “Schindler's List,” “Nell,” “Michael Collins,” “Rob Roy,” “Ethan Frome,” “Les Miserables” and Woody Allen's “Husbands and Wives,” among others. Note all the period pieces that allowed Neeson to take advantage of his Irish accent. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for “Schindler's List” and was on everyone's short-list of the best dramatic actors of the day. At this point, Neeson is in his early 40s. I expect if you told people at this point that he would be starring in “Taken” 15 years later, they would have laughed at you.
Perhaps it was the “Star Wars” prequels that first started to push public perception of Neeson in a different direction, although I'm sure he probably wasn't doing many of those stunts at the time. Regardless, it was probably 2005's “Batman Begins” that truly suggested a new, populist angle to the roles Neeson would be playing. From “villain in a Batman movie” it wasn't too far of a jump to imagine Neeson's character in 2008's “Taken.”
“Taken” is of course where things drastically changed, putting a 56-year-old Neeson into a role where he was beating the ever-living piss out of faceless, foreign bad guys. Suddenly, here was a new side to the former “Best Actor” nominee. The film made 10 times its budget, a whopping $225 million, spawning “Taken 2” in 2012 and a still-upcoming “Taken 3,” according to IMDB.
And thus was born the “Liam Neeson fighting things” subgenre, as other studios rushed to imprint the spirit of “Taken” into other vehicles for Liam Neeson, Action Star. First he fought Titans in “Clash of the Titans.” Then he fought the C.I.A. in “The A-Team.” Then he fought wolves and nature itself in “The Grey.” Next up were aliens in “Battleship” and now we're on to hijackers in “Non-Stop.” That is a LOT of Liam Neeson fighting things in a six-year period. Has any other actor been a Best Actor nominee at 41 and an action star at 56?
Today, Neeson is 61, and one can only wonder how long he'll continue to be cast in parts that look like they would once have belonged to Jean-Claude Van Damme. He has of course produced non-action films in this period as well, but I'm personally looking forward to the return of Liam Neeson the serious actor as someone whose presence signifies an award-winning film rather than a summer blockbuster. Call me a killjoy, but it seems to me like his talents could be put to better use than in punching more people in the face.