As whispers of Liam Neeson’s imminent retirement from action movies started to make its way down the Hollywood grapevine, cries of dismay rang out from audiences who felt unprepared to lose such an action movie legend.
But while there’s no doubt that Neeson’s career saw an astonishing resurgence with the release of Taken in 2008, whereby Neeson emerged as a hard-hitting action star, does that make all of the work he did prior to this point irrelevant? With a career reaching back to the late ’70s, it’s hard to contemplate why Neeson has been so defined by this final leg of his career, pigeonholing him as the “king of action”, with audiences quickly forgetting much of his (arguably stronger) earlier work. For the release of The Commuter on January 19, we’ve taken a look at why Liam Neeson should be considered as so much more than an action hero.
In various interviews over the past two years, Neeson has alluded to the fact that he would, in all likelihood, be retiring from kicking ass and taking names in the near future. In a 2015 interview, Neeson stated “maybe two more years. If God spares me and I’m healthy… But after that, I’ll stop [the action] I think.” And since then the day has drawn ever nearer to when Neeson would no longer grace our screens in his usual brutal style.
Finally, in September 2017, it was confirmed that Neeson would, indeed, be retiring from action, giving his age as the main reason behind the move. But who could blame Neeson for holding out so long and continuing to churn out (for the most part) monotonous action thrillers when “they’re still throwing serious money at me to do that stuff”? For an actor in his 50s, the overnight success of Taken back in 2008 must have been a dream come true, and so again: who could blame Neeson for taking a step back and partaking in some nonsensical action bravery for a few years?
There’s no denying that we’ve been graced with some highly enjoyable offerings over the past decade that certainly make him a strong contender for the “king of action”. The Grey (2011), for example, was met with critical acclaim for its depiction of the gritty fight for survival following a plane crash in a remote corner of Alaska. And while the film had its failings, as always Neeson was commended for his standard, dependable performance. And while the love audiences have for the Taken trilogy (2008-2014) is undisputed, special mention has to go to films such as Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014) for consistently showing us that Neeson can hold his own in a genre filled with Stallones and Schwarzeneggers. He’s a different kind of action star, and perhaps that’s why we’re sorry to see him go.
But though we’ll be regretful to lose such a familiar face from the genre, perhaps it’s for the best. For an actor that’s been a firm favourite on the silver screen since the early ’90s, with classics such as Schindler’s List (1993) and Rob Roy (1995), it leaves us asking the question: why is everyone so convinced that Neeson is only an action star? While Taken is widely considered the film that transformed Neeson into an action hero, people often forget that the film is actually only ten years old. And with this in mind, how can you base the integrity of a man’s entire career on only his latest work? No one can blame him for attempting to replicate the surprise success of Taken, and cash in at the same time, but does this define him as an actor? How can we so easily overlook what would, for any other actor, have been their most memorable and career-defining roles, such as “Priest” Vallon in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 period drama Gangs of New York, or as Qui-Gon Jinn in 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. It may only be the prequel trilogy, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the man’s a Jedi.
And it’s not only action films that Neeson’s been up to over the past few years – a particularly memorable voice performance in The Lego Movie (2014) certainly shouldn’t be overlooked, as well as his small but hilariously self-deprecating role in Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014). In this respect, Neeson should be celebrated as more than just an action hero. He’s an actor that, throughout the span of his career, has embodied iconic roles such as Oscar Schindler, Qui-Gon Jinn and Ra’s al Ghul (The Dark Knight trilogy, 2005-2012), starring in films that, unlike some of his more recent action offerings, are unlikely to be so easily lost in the ether. In fact, you could even argue that he’s not an action star at all. It really depends on your definition. If the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bruce Lee are some of the world’s favourite action stars, then it seems difficult to include Neeson under the same umbrella.
For an actor with so many defining and moving roles, it seems unfair to typecast him as an aging action star. It seems that since Taken first hit screens, audiences (and Hollywood) have seen Neeson in an entirely different light, and one that isn’t necessarily reflective of his impact and influence on the industry. Perhaps now that he’s hanging up his holster and focusing on other genres, we might start to see a return to his pre-2008 glory. But at the very least, let’s hope that The Commuter is the dignified and welcome conclusion to Neeson’s action career that he deserves.