Usually, movie stars choose to tackle action projects during their younger years, only to gradually settle into less physically demanding genres as they age and their joints don’t allow for the swift punches and kicks of yesteryear. Liam Neeson, the epitome of Irish charisma and tact, followed the opposite route for his career, starting as the household name for prestige dramas, only to turn into one of the most formidable action stars of recent memory at an age when most actors of his caliber are relegated to supporting roles where they’re tasked with delivering pages of on-the-nose exposition while sitting comfortably behind a desk. An actor in his 60s, like Neeson, is expected to play the part of the gruff head agent barking orders for his men to catch Jason Bourne, not Bourne himself.
But this is Neeson we’re talking about. He’ll proudly read his weekly email from AARP, while effortlessly kicking your lily millennial ass. The genesis of the Liam Neeson’s second action-filled act is the 2008 sleeper hit Taken, where Neeson’s ex special forces agent brutally disposed of a bunch of Eastern European thugs who didn’t know who they were fucking with when they kidnapped his—admittedly annoying as hell—daughter. Since then, Neeson has been consistently pumping out Taken clones that usually see a retired cop/agent being forced into a dangerous mystery that he alone has to solve. With the recent release (and success) of The Commuter in mind, we’ve ranked Neeson’s last decade of action flicks.
By the time we got to the third Taken, the first of which, like The Hangover or Home Alone, was one of those films with such a specific premise that made the idea of a retread entirely pointless to begin with, Neeson seemed visibly bored and uninterested in further pursuing this franchise that shouldn’t really have been turned into a franchise to begin with. After going the Die Hard 2 and The Hangover Part II route with the second Taken, practically offering a remake of the first film, only in a slightly different setting, the third entry in this totally pre-planned “trilogy” tried to pull a Hangover Part III and presented a woefully generic crime/chase/action project while hoping that tacking on some familiar characters would save the day. In both cases, this gamble resulted in a sequel that somehow managed to feel even less original and intriguing than the second film that didn’t even bother straying from the established formula. Add to this lack of creativity director Olivier Megaton’s fetish for wanton shaky cam and ADD cutting reaching an almost vomit-inducing zenith, and you have a real mess on your hands.
It’s Taken, but in Istanbul, and that’s about it. As much as I appreciate seeing such flattering visuals of my hometown in a major Hollywood feature (I feel as if the city’s tourism bureau pumped some cash into the production, hence the glamorous city shots that are right out of a Visit Istanbul commercial), Taken 2 is merely content with rethreading the entire structure of the first film without any of the original’s charm and forward momentum. This time it’s ex-special agent Bryan Mills’ wife (Famke Janssen) who gets taken, not his daughter (Maggie Grace), and that’s as much of an original touch as we will get. Of course, since the daughter’s not kidnapped this time around, we get to spend an unholy amount of screen time with her. That’s a big knock against the sequel, along with director Olivier Megaton’s trademark downright unintelligible shooting and editing style.
Pierre Morel might have began the Neeson renaissance with Taken, but it’s the actor’s ongoing collaboration with always solid Spanish genre helmer Jaume Collet-Serra that really defines the overall style and tone of these films. Neeson and Collet-Serra have four of these projects under their belts now, and all of them have been at least satisfying genre exercises so far. Even Run All Night, which might technically be “the worst” of their collaborations, is still a well-executed and paced “run from the angry mob” chase flick with a couple of excellent action set pieces that rely on practical stunts, as well as a basic but efficient theme of redemption. The final product is pretty straightforward as far as adult action/thrillers are concerned, and that’s kind of why it works as engaging entertainment. The action sequences are not overtly flashy, and the dramatic scenes that mostly focus on Neeson’s character, Jimmy, trying to patch things up with his estranged son as he tries to save him from the mob don’t veer too far into melodrama. The redemption theme that surrounds Jimmy is handled with enough respect as to not become too condescending, and Neeson fans looking forward to him efficiently mowing down bad guys will not leave disappointed, especially considering the badass bar shootout scene.
A Hitchcockian single-location mystery mixed with trademark Neeson ass kicking is a winning combination to begin with, and director Collet-Serra’s focused and deft execution results in a thoroughly entertaining piece of fairly self-aware schlock where the suspense escalates in breathtaking fashion. That is, until we get to the predictable plot twist that unceremoniously results in yet another generic action climax that sees the villain monologuing as the hero, Neeson’s air marshal trying to find a mysterious killer on a plane, is given time to easily figure out a way to beat him. With almost all of the Neeson/Collet-Serra collaborations so far, the escalation of the mystery during the first two acts is always more gripping than the underwhelming reveal in the third act. Non-Stop is in the middle of this list since it takes the hardest turn into boorish genre hackery at the end. That being said, good luck finding a more thrilling and raw fight scene that takes place in an airplane bathroom. The fact that Collet-Serra managed to block an exciting set-piece in such a cramped location, let alone fitting two actors in it, is nothing short of a miracle.
The Commuter is Non-Stop on a train, and that’s really about it. Everything, from the ex-cop protagonist’s initial depressed state, being saddled with an impossible and dangerous task by a mysterious set of bad guys in a confined location, the need to use his wits, intellect and fists to solve the case before an arbitrary ticking clock runs out—it’s all here. Of course both films also share the same director. The Commuter gets a slight bump from Non-Stop for three reasons: The climax, although equally predictable, is actually executed with more grace and creativity. The fact that it straight up turns into the insane Denzel Washington/Tony Scott actioner Unstoppable at some point is a big plus. Finally, the script’s themes that pit monetary greed regardless of consequence of others against a selfless need to help the helpless is actually handled in a surprisingly complex way, at least as complex as the genre allows it to be.
If you enjoy the Bourne movies, but wish Jason Bourne was a couple of decades older, Unknown is tailor-made for you. Another Hitchcockian mystery wrapped around a thrilling action coating, Unknown is the winner among the Neeson/Collet-Serra collaborations because of the tightly wound screenplay that actually offers some genuine surprises along the way, the gorgeous cinematography that captures the snowy Berlin locations as if it’s a John LeCarre adaptation, and the wholly satisfying use of the great Diane Kruger as a supporting character. As with the many other movies on this list, the ultimate twist in this mystery about a doctor who finds out that his identity has been erased after he wakes up from a coma runs out of steam as it reaches its predictable climax, but the journey there is what makes it so much fun.
As soon as he uttered the now-infamous monologue about his character’s particular set of skills, Neeson perhaps unwittingly propelled himself into the next clear stage of his career. What makes the first Taken still so much of a satisfying thrill ride lies in its relentless and refreshingly blunt focus on the narrative’s goals and drive. As soon as Neeson’s ex-special agent father finds out that his daughter’s been kidnapped by sex traffickers, he switches to “ruthless revenge machine” mode until the very end of the story with almost superhuman precision. The ruthless and uncompromising pursuit and punishment of the criminals even remotely connected to his daughter’s kidnapping is sold incredibly well by Neeson’s searing presence and magnetism. He almost singlehandedly turns what could have become yet another generic action release during the January dumping ground into an iconic genre staple.