His first role was nothing short of playing Jesus Christ. His most acclaimed performance is that of the saviour of hundreds of Jews. He is the master of the master of Darth Vader. He is the one who trained Batman. He is the voice behind the most majestic lion to walk on the big screen. He is the Greek God Zeus. He is all this and a lot more. Of course we are talking of Liam Neeson. The man whose personality seems nothing short of royalty, and whose deep voice can seduce you to the hilt. But for all his charisma and his obvious acting talent, Neeson was truly recognised in Hollywood only in 1993 with Schindler’s List, a time by when he was already 41. Since then Neeson has worked in quite a number of box-office hits, but he appeared more often as part of ensemble casts rather than as the sole driving force behind a movie. All that changed in 2008, the year which began a new chapter in Neeson’s life.
In early 2008, the French produced action film Taken was released. It found its way to the shores of the USA only by January 2009, but as they say, better late than never. Taken was a massive success; made on a production budget of $25 million, it raked $227 million worldwide, of which $145 million came from North America alone. The straightforward plot of a retired CIA agent who travels across Europe to save his estranged daughter who has been kidnapped while on a trip to Paris, worked largely on the back of a tough and committed performance by Liam Neeson, who by the way was moving towards his late 50s. Those lines delivered to the kidnappers on a telephone with an icy coolness despite the heated moment still send chills down the spine.
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 a threat which was delivered in stylish fashion by Liam Neeson, and from thereon the producers saw something which had been largely overlooked. An action hero who can captivate the audience even when he does not have a gun in his hand; a not so young one, no doubt, but then there has been no better period for aging action stars then now, right?
Liam Neeson then became John “Hannibal” Smith, the leader of a strange but effective task force, in the action movie The A-Team. A film filled with lot of traditional action stunts, Nesson wasn’t the sole hero to focus on here, with Bradley Cooper right alongside him. While the high budget film fared lower than expectations on the box-office, other solo lead roles have followed for Neeson. In the 2011 action thriller film, Unknown, Liam Neeson was once more the central attraction just as he was with Taken. The film had an intriguing plot about a man waking up from coma to realise that someone has taken over his identity and no one, including his wife, believes him. Unknown had an early 2011 release, a period which is starting to be associated with a Liam Neeson film, and while it wasn’t a runaway success as Taken, its $131 million worldwide earnings compared well to its $30 million production budget. Unknown too benefitted much from Neeson’s charm, as the movie makers effectively created his character as someone worth sympathising about, and at the same time Neeson oozes that persona of a man who can fix things right, no matter what it takes.
In early 2012, another Neeson action adventure film released in the USA, this one called The Grey. The film though carried with it its fair share of drama element too. Liam Neeson played a hunter who is the survivor of a plane crash, and has to fend off a pack of wolves following him and a group of oil workers. Pitching Liam Neeson against a bunch of wild beasts seemed an idea worth taking a shot at! While Neeson had no slick threats to make to the animals, he did perfectly well cut out the figure of a survivor willing to take on a challenge even when the odds are stacked against him. A common denominator found in his leading role films. The modest production budget of $25 million would have been well recovered as The Grey grossed $77 million in worldwide revenues.
Late on in 2012 came one of the biggest hits of Neeson’s career as a solo lead actor, Taken 2, the sequel to the movie that started this new journey. On the face of it, the first movie did not have a plot that could have been expanded. But trust Hollywood studios to manage to milk their cash cow! In Taken 2, Neeson’s character and his wife get kidnapped as an act of revenge for the men he killed in the first film. Needless to say, Neeson hunts the new set of captors down too. Taken 2 did not try anything new, and left it to the audience to fall in love with Neeson and his ways again. Well, most of them definitely did! Made on a higher production budget of $45 million, the movie earned $376 million worldwide, setting off the buzz on a possible Taken 3 (is there anyone else left to kidnap?). Neeson had initially denied working on another sequel, but the studios have managed to rope him in, with the added incentive of earning a $20 million paycheck which is higher than the $15 million he earned on Taken 2. So who will get taken? It seems, nobody. Neeson recently remarked that he signed on for Taken 3 on the condition that no one gets taken. Well, then the title goes for a toss, doesn’t it? Forest Whitaker has been added to the cast as well, and maybe Neeson will assist him in getting back something, or the other, or whatever. The plot is never really the reason for watching these films as long as the smooth Neeson continues to threaten in that rich soothing voice, right?
Now early 2014 brings the latest of the Liam Neeson driven action films titled Non-Stop. Neeson plays an Air Marshall who is on a transatlantic flight that is under threat by unknown assailants unless the airline transfers a huge ransom amount to an off-shore account. It’s a plot which seems to have been written keeping in mind the growing persona of Liam Neeson as an action hero who saves the day. One can feel the tense setup that the movie would carry, with all eyes glued on Liam Neeson to come to the rescue. The movie also stars Juliane Moore and the recent Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave). It brings together Neeson once again with Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra (no pun intended!). Going by past history, these films tend to work, with Liam Neeson expected to do enough to keep the audience hooked onto his every word and move. Though with a production budget said to be around $50 million, this one would be one of the costliest films made with Neeson as the central character. Will the Neeson charisma be enough to dazzle the box-office, we shall know this weekend. But whatever be the fate of Non-Stop, the Liam Neeson action run is not going to stop anytime soon. A Walk Among The Tombstones is set for a September 2014 release where Neeson has been cast as a private investigator; Run All Night where Neeson plays an aging hitman will be the film slotting into the “Neeson time” next year, i.e. February 2015; and then there will be Taken 3 releasing sometime after that. The versatility of the actor is of course not forgotten as he will feature in the comedy western film A Million Ways to Die in the West releasing this year, and also stars in the next Martin Scorsese film Silence. Eh, but whatever other roles he continues to do, Liam Neeson’s action run seems to be non-stop!