Liam Neeson has retired from action films we’ll miss his particular set of skills
The Taken actor has announced his departure from the genre after a decade of gleefully schlocky thrillers, but also one stone-cold classic
So thats it. Liam Neeson is no longer an action movie star. His retirement from action films, announced yesterday (Im sixty-fucking-five. Audiences are eventually going to go: Come on, he said at the Toronto film festival), forms the conclusion of perhaps the most unlikely career jag in cinema history.
It would have been unthinkable to suggest, pre-Taken, that Liam Neeson soulful, mournful, capital-A actor Liam Neeson from Schindlers List would spend a decade punching people and jumping over things in an apparently ceaseless procession of generic B-movies would have been unthinkable. It would have been like suggesting that Daniel Day-Lewis was going to devote his life to gross-out comedy, or that Mark Rylance should sign up as the lead of a vampire gangster franchise called Bloodburst Hookers Extreme.
And yet, viewed from this side, Neesons action stint makes perfect sense. Although he enjoyed a four-year purple period in the 90s, during which he starred in Husbands and Wives, Schindlers List and Michael Collins, a retrospective glance at Neesons filmography shows a hidden love of silliness right from the beginning. His breakout starring role in 1990s Darkman was a thrill precisely because he was already subverting a reputation that didnt exist yet, cutting his well-versed sincerity with moments of gonzo ridiculousness. And, honestly, you dont sign up for a Star Wars film unless you inherently favour swooshing about with a glowing stick over hard-earned credibility.
But even taking these unexpected turns into consideration, Taken still came as a shock. On paper, Bryan Mills could have been played by anyone a Statham, a Seagal, a Van Damme but hiring Neeson was a masterstroke. His credentials as a respected actor meant that he could sell the heck out the films early scenes where his primary character trait was sadsack to the point that you actually felt invested in his plight come the end. The films iconic moment is the phone call scene, the particular set of skills scene, which Neeson corralled into a virtuoso demonstration of controlled rage. Put that speech in the mouth of any other action star and itd be a mess; with Neeson it is a perfectly contained For Your Consideration package.
Not all of all of Neesons action experiments have been as successful as Taken. Far from it. Even though I watched Unknown in the cinema, I couldnt have told you what happened in it five minutes after the credits rolled. I also paid to watch his A-Team revival, and Ive only just remembered that it existed. Non-Stop was as generic as a film can possibly get. Run All Night felt like it was created by an algorithm to refill the worlds bargain basement DVD buckets. Despite his rumoured $20 million salary, Taken 3 with its infamous 15-shot fence-jumping scene represented a horrible new low. Its only right that he should decide to recalibrate his career back towards drama after such a mess.
Taking this into consideration, Neesons retirement should be celebrated. He possesses such an astonishing range of ability that it doesnt benefit anyone to confine him to such a narrow genre. In the last three years alone, hes been breathtaking in Scorseses Silence, heartbreaking in A Monster Calls and flat-out hilarious in The Lego Movie. The fact that hell soon be starring in Steve McQueens Widows seems to signify that hes ready to show the world what an acting powerhouse he still is, and not a moment too soon.
However, if nothing else, Neesons action experiment did result in one unqualified success. If you havent seen 2011s The Grey, then you must. Depicted in the trailers as yet another schlocky action outing where Neeson tapes miniature vodka bottles onto his fists and punches a wolf, the film itself is an unexpectedly beautiful meditation on grief that comes out of nowhere and leaves you absolutely floored. Plus, he does actually punch a wolf with a bottle taped to his knuckles. It played to Neesons strengths exactly. No other actor on Earth could have pulled it off. If nothing else, The Grey makes this last decade-long tangent worthwhile. If he wants to come out of retirement for a sequel, Im sure theyll let him.