Liam Neeson has a very particular set of skills that he has acquired over a very long career, but he won’t be putting them to use for much longer. The actor announced last year that he’s retiring from action movies, capping off an unlikely decade-long span that began with “Taken” and ends with this week’s “The Commuter.” After grossing nearly $1 billion with the “Taken” movies and more than $700 million with his other genre fare, it seems Neeson has chosen to leave audiences wanting more rather than overstay his welcome.
If it’s saddening to learn that this chapter of his story is coming to a close, take solace in the fact that he never meant for it to happen in this first place. “The thrillers, that was all a pure accident,” Neeson told Radio Times at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. “They’re still throwing serious money at me to do that stuff. I’m like, ‘Guys, I’m sixty-fucking-five.’ Audiences are eventually going to go, ‘Come on.’”
With respect to “The Commuter,” he added: “I’ve shot one that’s going to come out in January sometime. There might be another. That’s it. But not ‘Taken,’ none of that franchise stuff.”
Age and resume aside, Neeson’s second act now seems inevitable in hindsight. Standing 6’4” and with an accent that’s more menacing than lilting, the imposing Irishman always had a certainty intensity to him. You don’t root for Neeson in movies like “Taken” just because the good guy — you do it because you know, even better than his ill-fated enemies do, that it’s better to be on his good side.
Not that “Taken” was his first foray into genre territory. Neeson’s appearances in “Batman Begins,” “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” and “K-19: The Widowmaker” all preceded his turn as Bryan Mills, that daughter-saving killing machine audiences have come to know and love, but he was better known for his Oscar-nominated role in “Schindler’s List” and similarly acclaimed performances in the likes of “Kinsey.” He was 55 years old when Albanian sex traffickers made the grave mistake of kidnapping his fictional offspring; now 65, he’d be more likely to play a character whose grandchild had been taken.
Few who saw “Taken 3” are likely to mourn yet another franchise that faced diminishing returns with each new installment, but Neeson’s unexpected second act is a different story. Though the quality of the actual films varied wildly — for every “The Grey” there was, well, a “Taken 3” — Neeson brought a good deal more credibility to such endeavors than a replacement-level like Gerard Butler would have. January and February are usually wastelands at the multiplex, but at least with movies like “Unknown” and “Non-Stop” (which, like “The Commuter,” were directed by underrated genre maestro Jaume Collet-Serra) you knew that the silliness would be anchored by a solid performance.
Think of it as a corollary to Harrison Ford headlining genre fare that we now know he’s never taken that seriously. Neeson never seems like he’d rather be somewhere else when you’re watching him in “Run All Night,” but there’s an implicit understanding between audience and star that he’s elevating schlocky material for both our benefit and his. Someone had to star in these movies, and aren’t we all better off that it was him rather than a Jai Courtney or Scott Eastwood?
Not that all of them needed much elevating. “Taken” was a runaway success for a reason, and Neeson’s collaborations with Collet-Serra in particular (including “Run All Night”) were worthy time-killers. They all pale in comparison to “The Grey,” though, which is easy to dismissively (if accurately) remember as “the movie where Liam Neeson fights a bunch of wolves” but which also elicited his best performance since “Kinsey.” That it called upon him to play a man recovering from the loss of his wife, as Neeson himself was at the time, probably isn’t a coincidence. (Natasha Richardson died in March of 2009 following a skiing accident.)
Survivalist thrillers are rare these days, doubly so those that call upon their star to wax existential when he isn’t fighting for his life among in the elements. “The Grey,” which was directed by “Smokin’ Aces” and “The A-Team” helmer Joe Carnahan, came complete with a recitation for Neeson to repeat several times: “Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.” It now seems a kind of thesis statement for his entire action career, and words worth remembering as we look toward his next act.