Liam Neeson has been headlining action movies for eleven years now, but how did he become the action star we love today?
Ever since Taken blew up box office records in January 2009, Neeson has regularly headlined other thrillers attempting to recreate the magic of Taken.
These titles have included Unknown, Non-Stop, The Commuter, Cold Pursuit and the new release Honest Thief.
How did Neeson go from headlining dramas like Schindler’s List and Kinsey to snapping necks in action movies?
Well, the most literal answer to that question is that Neeson was simply looking for something different in his roles.
“I wanted to do more physical stuff, I really thought it would be kind of a little side road from my so-called career,” Neeson told GQ in February 2014.
That “little side road” has defined Neeson’s lead roles for eleven years now and has cemented Neeson’s persona as an action movie star.
The actor’s unexpected detour into action movie stardom mirrors the career paths of many other icons of the genre.
After all, Bruce Willis was a sitcom star on Moonlighting before Die Hard turned him into an action star.
Neeson’s career trajectory is not unprecedented for action movie stars.
How did Liam Neeson become the action movie star we know today?
However, while no one could have ever predicted Neeson would be defined by action movies, the elements that would make Neeson a compelling action movie lead have been around his entire career.
For one thing, Neeson carries an imposing screen presence.
He can communicate so much without speaking a word.
This gift helped him sell one of his earliest roles as a mute potential murderer Carl Anderson in Suspect.
Neeson gives Anderson an intimidating frame that makes it believable that he could take someone out while also lending a sense of sincerity to Anderson’s insistence of his innocence.
This combination of the formidable and the deeply human would be apparent all throughout Neeson’s career.
Years later, that same talent would be used to create a stirring but distinctly human persona for the titular lead role of Michael Collins.
Even the widely-maligned Phantom Menace demonstrates this talent capably through Neeson’s performance as Qui-Gon Jinn.
Neeson naturally exudes a commanding presence that makes him believable as a Jedi Master.
However, his warmth whenever he plays opposite Jake Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker makes it equally believable that this kid could latch onto Qui-Gon as the father figure he never had.
In his earliest work, Neeson put these two seemingly disparate aspects of his acting style to more intimate use.
Liam Neeson’s performance in Schindler’s List is something everyone has to watch
This is most notably seen in one of the final scenes of Schindler’s List, as Oskar Schindler reflects on how he could have helped save a few more people if he had sole even more of his possessions.
Watching Neeson as Schindler exude such open and raw vulnerability proves extra harrowing because of how much it contrasts with his usual stoic demeanour.
Now, he’s utilizing that same gift in a different manner.
Neeson can easily create a tough-guy persona that you can believe could take down any villains who kidnap his daughter, hijack a plane, steal a train, etc.
However, Neeson’s best action movies also make sure his characters could also convincingly function as real people.
The opening of The Commuter is a great example of this.
The film opens with a montage of Neeson’s character engaging in mundane everyday life with his wife and child.
It’s evocative of the opening of Up, a snapshot of suburban normalcy and all its up’s and downs.
Through this sequence, we get a good sense of who The Commuter protagonist Michael MacCauley is as a person.
Much of this is due to Neeson being extremely believable as an everyday suburban dad, particularly in his chemistry with Elizabeth McGovern as the characters significant other.
There’s a world of difference between Neeson’s earliest works and The Commuter.
For one thing, I don’t remember any trains blowing up in Suspect!
However, one thing they share is Neeson’s ability to convey both intimidation and relatability with equal levels of success.
Neeson does not shy away from genre movies
Neeson’s career in action movies was also foreshadowed by the fact that the actor has never shied away from genre films.
After all, one of Neeson’s first lead roles came in Sam Raimi’s 1990 superhero movie Darkman.
Neeson wasn’t just being called up to use his daunting screen presence here.
To reflect the horribly scarred condition of Darkman, Neeson would wear extensive makeup and would spend much of his screentime wrapped up in bandages like The Invisible Man.
This showed a level of commitment on the part of Neeson, a commitment that would be reflected in his later dedication action thrillers.
When Darkman isn’t working on creating synthetic skin, he fights the cartoony mobsters who previously tried to kill him.
Neeson’s Darkman is like a cross between a Universal Monsters and Dick Tracy, a departure from his other early roles in films like Michael Collins.
In fact, Darkman’s action revenge mission bears far more of a similarity to Neeson’s later Taken movies.
Darkman bending the fingers of a rude carny could easily be one of those “special skills” that Taken protagonist Bryan Mills was talking about.
In addition to establishing Neeson as a powerful force when it comes to action material, Darkman also proved to be Neeson’s introduction into genre fare.
Darkman might have been the beginning of Liam Neeson’s action movie career
Neeson continued to explore the genre that would define the late part of his career by appearing in films like The Phantom Menace, Batman Begins and The Haunting over the next two decades.
The biggest difference between these early films and his eventual Taken-esque features is that he was usually typecast as a mentor figure.
Neeson so often played these type of characters that the plot twist that he was actually Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, rather than just Bruce Wayne’s mentor Henri Ducard, was meant to be a subversion of viewer expectations.
Now, though, Neeson’s annual action movies, like Honest Thief, allow him to take centre stage.
In these lead roles, Neeson can demonstrate a number of acting traits that put him on the map as a performer in the first place.
At the same time, Neeson can also show off the “special skills’ that have made him a modern-day action movie staple.
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