The Question: Has Liam Neeson’s recent run of action movies hurt his career?
Daniel Cohen: Actors don’t open movies anymore. It’s all about the franchises. But if there’s one man who can still sell a cliché action movie with a boring one word title, it’s Liam Neeson. Do his movies make Guardians of the Galaxy type money? No. But they profit well, and if it weren’t for Neeson, movies like Taken, Unknown, and Non-Stop would open in eighth place at the box office. That’s how much cachet Liam Neeson has.
With all the action roles Neeson has taken in the last few years, we forget he was nominated for Best Actor in 1993’s Schindler’s List, and probably would have won had it not been for Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. Neeson’s last true Oscar type role was probably ten years ago with 2004’s Kinsey. Some have argued that Neeson’s new status as the old man action star has hurt his career as a legitimate actor. Not only do I think this theory is incorrect, but Neeson’s recent string of films have actually enhanced his talent as an elite actor.
When we look at Taken or Non-Stop, these movies should suck on paper. Neeson not only makes them passable, but elevates these films to the point where they are actually good, especially in regards to Taken. Taken is an awful script. It’s completely generic and cliché. The famous “skills” speech on paper is not good writing, but Neeson made it not only tolerable, but iconic. That to me is not the sign of a forgettable action star like Jason Statham, but a truly gifted actor.
We rightfully praise actors like Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, but they’ve gotten to work twice with David O. Russell, one of the best directors in the business. We all forget that directors are a critical part of making these actors look good. With a lot of these Liam Neeson action movies, he’s worked with a bunch of nobody directors, yet is still able to bring the goods. That’s not an easy thing to do. As much as I love Christian Bale, even he couldn’t do it with Terminator Salvation.
Elevating weak material and working with average directors is why Neeson’s recent action renaissance makes him a more credible actor in my eyes. I believe Neeson still gets Oscar level scripts, but just isn’t doing them right now. Although I think 2012’s The Grey is criminally underrated. I implore everyone to see that one – it’s Rambo with snow. At some point, Neeson will do another awards movie, and the public will see him as not just the action guy, but a downright great actor.
Bill Bodkin: Liam Neeson is a fantastic actor and it’s a shame that we’ve seen him devolve into a modern day Charles Bronson.
For those unfamiliar with the squinty one, Charles Bronson was a bona fide player in Hollywood in the 60s and 70s. He landed plum supporting roles in iconic WWII pictures like The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape and by the 70s was headlining major motion pictures. Granted, these films weren’t even as close to being beloved or critically lauded as Neeson’s ever were. Yet, I bring him up, because there was a moment in Bronson’s career that I’m afraid Neeson’s is going hit very soon. Bronson had starred in Death Wish back in the 70s and it was a massive hit. He made a handful of other movies before moving onto to Death Wish II and that’s when things took a turn. From then on in, Bronson only seemed to be cast in red blooded action movies where he talked softly and carried a big stick. He went on to star in five Death Wish movies while playing tough cops in such forgettable films like Kinijte and Murphy’s Law. Sure, some of them made a lot of money, but the promising career Bronson once had was forgotten for his latter day run-and-gun career.
I fear the same fate for Liam Neeson. Yes, he has had great success recently, where everything he touched turned to gold. The question remains though – how many times can he be the tall, gruff-talking, beleaguered man with a plan? How many times can we see him retrofit his Taken character into a new role, giving him a slight variation on Brian Mills. Neeson is a truly gifted actor, but what the hell has he done differently or even memorably in any film where he’s been the lead recently?
Then again, outside of the Batman films, has he done ANYTHING of merit? No one liked the A-Team (except me), the Titans movies were laughable at best, and he starred in Battleship…that’s right BATTLESHIP. Yes, Neeson can act his way out of a paper bag, but when you keep taking roles in terrible movies, one starts to forget the Michael Collins and Schindler’s Lists and Rob Roys of the world. Hey, does anyone remember when Wesley Snipes had a dramatic career? Or that Stallone was nominated for an Oscar? Nope, they remember them for The Expendables or any one of the millions straight-to-DVD releases they’ve done. Or look at the Charles Bronson example. Or even Tom Cruise. Yes, all of these men have critically beloved films to their name, but once they went down that slippery slope of big budget action flicks, it was all she wrote for their dramatic street creed.
Liam Neeson is a masterful actor and he’s had so many great roles — both dramatic and even comedic (who didn’t love him in Love Actually?) — but to keep his good dramatic name in tact, he’s got to start choosing better roles. Maybe some meaty supporting gigs in bigger budget epics or higher profile Oscar-bait. He needs more Batman Begins and less Non-Stop. The last thing I’d like to see if in five years Liam Neeson starring in Wal-mart discount bin action flicks that never saw the light of a move theater. But, if he keeps up his current pace, he just might.