“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, 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. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
It’s the monologue that would redefine a career, as 2008’s Taken saw Liam Neeson, previously known as a solemn, melancholy character actor (with a Best Actor nomination for his dignified turn as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List), transform into a lanky, gruff, uncompromising action star.
At the time, it felt like a momentary departure for the man, a $25 million lark coasting on the success of the Bourne films and making expert use of Neeson’s sequoia-tall frame and voice like crackling bark (it’s no surprise he’d later play a talking tree in 2016’s fantasy tearjerker A Monster Calls). But as fate would have it, Taken would make more than $200 million at the box office, and a franchise — and subgenre — would be born.
By 2022, Neeson would star in around fifteen films that could qualify, in one form or another, as a Taken-y action movie (or, as Nate Fisher would dub them at RogerEbert.com, the “January Neesons”), with a variety of directors and a wide variety of budgets.
The ingredients are simple: Cast Neeson as an over-the-hill spy, ex-cop, or other expert in the rarefied field of dispensing violence. Give him some kind of physical or emotional impairment: He’s an alcoholic, he’s got a tragic past, dead or estranged relatives, financial troubles. Sometimes, you can make him lose his memory (as this week’s new release, Memory, does), or even his identity. But no matter what contrivances or obstacles you put in his path, he’ll weather them and even overcome them — even if he doesn’t always make it to the end.
What sets these apart from a lot of other middling actioners like it is, of course, Neeson himself, a man with the build of an action star but the quiet dignity and brittleness of a trained Shakespearean actor. Neeson, who grew up in Ireland, trained as a boxer and worked as a forklift driver for Guinness (how Irish is this guy?) before moving into theater and eventually finding starring roles on film in works like Under Suspicion and Nell.
He carries himself with immense precision, his sad eyes and grimacing face as capable of remarkable tenderness as it is murderous rage. His action heroes are broken, torn-down men, worn by age and drink and despair, the plots of these movies often involving late-in-life attempts at redemption for the things he’s done.
Even in the worst of these, it’s Neeson who holds all the ramshackle pieces together. And in the best of these (particularly his long collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra, who calibrates the Taken persona into more intriguing and genre-fueled directions in the mid-2010s)? He’s magnificent.
In celebration of hitting fifteen movies where a man in his late sixties still murders folks with all the skill of Jack Bauer, we’ve decided to run down the list of the Neeson-led action films, the times where he took a break from playing holy men (Silence) and romantic leads (Love, Actually) to dispense justice on the wicked and defend the innocent. And maybe, just maybe, giving his own crumbling body a moment of peace.
15. Memory (2022)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Alex Lewis, an elderly assassin who’ll take any job and get it done…. unless it involves killing kids.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? As a professional killer, he’s handy with a pistol and not a bad driver to boot. But unfortunately, his old age has added another handicap to his toolbox: advanced Alzheimer’s, leading him to occasionally lapse and forget where he is or why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Who’s He Avenging? A 13-year-old victim of sex trafficking he was assigned to kill, and who was murdered by the underlings of an unscrupulous businesswoman (Monica Bellucci).
The Verdict: Neeson’s worst movies in this vein are, unfortunately, his most recent: Memory qualifies as the bottom of the barrel thanks to a clunky, overlong script (the movie clocks in at two hours) and some cheap DTV filmmaking that not even Bond director extraordinaire Martin Campbell can save.
But maybe the most tragic part of his is Neeson, or rather, the lack of him: when he’s on screen, playing a bit with his gruff-killer persona with moments of confusion and vulnerability, it ain’t bad. But really, the film’s protagonist isn’t Neeson, but Guy Pearce as a haggard FBI agent trying to break up Bellucci’s crime syndicate, which means the scenes with Neeson are sandwiched between tedious police procedurals with Pearce, who gets so little to work with. The idea of an old assassin who’s still got a quick trigger-finger, but a failing memory, is interesting, but it’s wasted on such a humdrum story.
14. Blacklight (2022)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Travis Block, a Vietnam War vet turned FBI fixer looking to retire and spend more time with his daughter and granddaughter.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? The usual gunplay and bombmaking stuff, nothing too special.
Who’s He Avenging? A political activist and a rogue FBI agent, respectively, who were about to spill the beans on a secret government project that sought to kill innocent civilians for speaking out against the government.
The Verdict: Let’s be honest; no one has seen Blacklight, including this intrepid writer. Co-writer/director Mark Williams will make some slightly more interesting stuff later on this list, but consider this one a casualty of the $20-a-ticket VOD pricing we’re dealing with in this post-COVID era, even for movies as inconsequential as this one.
13. Taken 3 (2014)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Bryan Mills, ex-CIA spook, ex-husband, last place for the Father of the Year Award.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? All the skills he had in the first two Takens, with some fun new ones including waterboarding and crashing sports cars into private jets. He also knows exactly how to lure his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) into contact with him: poison the “peach yogurt drink” she takes from the exact same cooler at the exact same bodega every day, then ambush her in the bathroom with the antidote.
Who’s He Avenging? Lenore (Famke Janssen), who was slowly coming around to the idea of leaving her new jerk husband (Dougray Scott) for Bryan, only to be unceremoniously killed by Russian assassins.
The Verdict: Yes, this is the one with the infamous sequence where it takes director Oliver Megaton fifteen cuts to show Liam Neeson climbing over a chain-link fence. Apart from the ostensible giggles that provides, this one clearly shows the series’ age; Neeson’s not into it anymore, Kim continues to be deeply annoying, and not even the introduction of Forest Whitaker as a Javert-like pursuer for Mills can make things any easier.
Megaton’s one of the worst directors for Neeson, cutting through all his lanky brawls and fistfights as if he’d thrown all the dailies in a blender, laid it out, and sent it to print. That said, I’m dying to know what “peach yogurt drink” is, and why no one will say the brand name.
12. The Ice Road (2021)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Mike McCann, an everyday working Joe at the end of a long career as an ice-road trucker with little to show for it, besides his PTSD and aphasia-addled brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas).
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? Driving a truck, mostly? Thankfully, the movies where Liam Neeson drives a big truck are refreshingly bereft of a Hidden Past as a Secret Badass.
Who’s He Avenging? Not avenging, per se, but racing along frozen lakes to transport wellheads to Manitoba so they can rescue 26 miners (led by Holt McCallany) trapped after a methane explosion.
The Verdict: Netflix gets in on the Liam Neeson racket with this one, and despite some nifty genre conventions (this is way more Wages of Fear than Taken) it still moves along at a snail’s pace. It’s slow, for one, and the supporting cast can’t quite give him much to bounce off of (save for maybe Laurence Fishburne, who gets an ‘and’ credit even though he croaks before the first act is done).
The hokey VFX doesn’t help, nor does the creaky treatment of disability the film gives poor Gurty, whose dialogue doesn’t mimic the patterns of aphasia as much as it makes him sound like Trucker Yoda. Deeply forgettable, even for a film of this ilk.
11. Honest Thief (2020)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Tommy Dolan, otherwise known as the In-And-Out Bandit, who robbed 18 banks over the course of his lifetime and always got away with it… until a late-in-life romance with Annie (Kate Walsh), an aspiring psychotherapist who works at the storage unit he squirrels his nest egg in, makes him decide to come clean to the authorities and go straight. See? He’s an HONEST. THIEF.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? While he’s implicitly really good at robbing banks, there’s very little thievery in Honest Thief. Instead, Tommy shows suspiciously Bryan Mills-ian skills with a gun and a steering wheel.
Who’s He Avenging? In a weird way, Robert Patrick, who plays an FBI agent murdered by a couple of rogue agents (Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos) who decide to pocket Tommy’s millions instead of turning it in. Pinned for the murder instead, he’s got to go on the run to clear his name and protect Annie after she finds herself in the crosshairs as well.
The Verdict: Williams’ first go-round with Neeson is decent enough, despite some visibly cheap digital filmmaking and uninspiring supporting turns from Ramos and Courtney. (Jeffrey Donovan’s cute, though, as a grumpy but sympathetic FBI agent stuck with his ex-wife’s equally cute Shih Tzu, Tazzy.)
Still, what elevates the proceedings is Walsh’s sparky turn as Annie, one of the few romantic interests in Neeson’s oeuvre to have both chemistry with the guy and an inner life of her own. It’s still Redbox fodder through and through, but I almost wish there was a version of this that didn’t have to turn into a big shoot-em-up. Though I guess that’s just David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun. I just wanna see if these two crazy kids make it, that’s all!
10. The Marksman (2021)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Jim Hanson, a Vietnam War vet, widower, alcoholic, and Marine Corps sniper extraordinaire — that’s Neeson bingo! He’s living out his golden years patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border with his adorable dog, Jackson, reporting illegal crossings to Border Patrol.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? As the title implies, he’s a crack shot, plus the usual Neeson talent tree of “punch and drive good.” Plus, he’s seemingly fueled by his deep and abiding love for Chicago hot dogs, which are the Best Thing Ever (and about which he gushes in one scene with all the zeal of someone who’s read about a Chicago hot dog once).
Who’s He Avenging? But his life gets exceedingly complicated when a woman (Teresa Ruiz) and her young boy (Jacob Perez’s Miguel) beg for his help after escaping a dangerous drug cartel. Soon enough, the mother is dead, and Jim’s found himself promising he’ll get Miguel to Chicago. Not an easy feat, considering the kid’s still undocumented and the cartel are still hot on their heels.
The Verdict: There are more than a few superficial similarities between The Marksman and Clint Eastwood’s final film to date, Cry Macho — two movies about old cowpokes going on a road trip with a Mexican son figure he’s tasked with protecting. And considering director Robert Lorenz is a frequent producer/acolyte of Eastwood’s, those comparisons aren’t far off.
As these go, it’s a nifty little neo-Western that makes deceptively strong use of Neeson’s creeping fragility as the man approaches his seventies, even if it falls along a lot of predictable lines. Still, he’ll do this “broken man trying to do good by others using his horrible talents” thing far better in much more dramatically exciting films.