Liam Neeson has a very particular set of skills; Skills that he has acquired over a long and illustrated career; Skills that make it an absolute thrill for guys like me to cover a career like his.
Whether he’s playing intellectual mentors, ass-kicking kilt-wearing Scottish warriors, light saber wielding Jedis, blade brandishing priests, cigar-chomping colonels, sex gurus or brave-hearted revolutionaries, one thing remains constant: He’ll deliver the goods. One of the most refined and indelible presences in modern cinema, Neeson began his three-decade long career with a string of supporting roles that paved way to a successful stint as a leading man in acclaimed biopics and serious arthouse fare, before reinventing himself to 21st century audiences as a grizzled action hero. With the actor making his presence felt in four features this year (The Grey, Wrath of the Titans, Taken 2, and this week’s Battleship), plus a “secret” cameo in a fifth, he’s our choice for this week’s edition of [The Film Dossier].
The Filmmaker: Liam Neeson
Oscar Nods: 1 (Best Actor in a Leading Role – Schindler’s List (1993))
Highest Grossing Film: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Debut Feature: Pilgrim’s Progress (1978)
Latest Feature: Battleship (2012)
[BREAKTHROUGH FILM]: Darkman (1990)
For a moment, I contemplated picking Taken as Neeson’s breakthrough feature since it introduced him to a brand new demographic of moviegoers and was vital in re-branding him as a Charles Bronson-like action hero. But then, good sense prevailed. I decided to settle on this micro-budgeted superhero film created by Sam Riami. One of his first leading roles, Neeson plays Dr. Peyton Westlake, a brilliant scientist who enacts vengeance on the gangsters who leave him for dead after an explosion at his lab renders him a faceless monster. Though severely dated, with poor CGI and some wildly over-the-top cheese (see below), it was the first film to demonstrate Neeson’s inclination towards playing strong silent types. The exposure he received after the success of Darkman eventually led to a string of supporting roles including a plump one in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives.
[THE ICONIC ROLE & BEST FILM] Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List (1993)
Darkman may have been his Hollywood breakthrough film but it’s simply impossible to argue against Schindler’s List as the film that made Neeson a household name across the globe. A hundred years from now when the name “Liam Neeson” pops up in some futuristic 20th Century Trivia game, Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus is the film that will be mentioned in parenthesis right by Neeson’s name. As Oskar Schindler, the shrewd and charismatic German businessman who saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews during World War II, Neeson embodied the showmanship, charm and heroism of Schindler. It’s a supremely difficult role when you consider how Schindler transforms from a money-grubbing Nazi to an inspiring hero but Neeson hit it out of the park. He was rightfully rewarded with an Oscar nomination – surprisingly, his only one to date. My pick as both, his Iconic Role and his Best Film, Schindler’s List is the film that shot Neeson from the rank of supporting player to the stratosphere of A-lister – a rank he has held ever since.
[WORST FILM] The Haunting (1998)
Neeson’s post-Taken career is akin to that scene in Blazing Saddles with all the cowboys sitting around the campfire. You know… stink-bombs all around! But my pick for his absolute worst wet one came a decade before Taken – 1998′s The Haunting, the putrid remake of the 1963 classic about a psychologist (Neeson) who conducts a study on fear at a haunted mansion – or something to that effect. Boring, stupid, and brimmed with horror clichés, I don’t have much to add about this awful film than to stay as far away as possible from it – unless the sight of Owen Wilson getting brutally decapitated excites you.
[MOST UNDERRATED FILM] Rob Roy (1995)
Like Schindler’s List, there wasn’t much pondering to do when it came down to picking the towering Irish actor’s most underrated effort. Overshadowed by Braveheart, which arrived only two months later, Rob Roy, a rousing Scotland-set epic from director Michael Canton-Jones, is the stirring story of dashing, honor-bound highlander Robert Roy MacGregor (Neeson, sporting a fancy kilt) who becomes an outlaw after he is wrongly accused of stealing by a degenerate landowner (John Hurt). While I don’t think I’d go as far as to call this mash-up of Robin Hood and classic westerns a great film, it’s full of fantastic performances from a talented cast that also features Jessica Lange, Brian Cox, Eric Stoltz and Tim Roth in an Oscar-nominated performance as the scheming Archibald Cunningham. Like most Scottish-highlands set epics, there are sword fights aplenty including a climactic one which ranks as one of the most nail-biting ones ever captured on film.
[MOST OVERRATED FILM] Taken (2009)
There are very few Liam Neeson films I’d consider overrated but this action movie from Luc Besson and Pierre Morel that saw the actor kicking off a new saga of his career easily tops the list. Yes, it’s arguably his most popular film after Schindler’s List, has spectacular action scenes, and hearing Neeson spewing lines like his now-famous “particular set of skills” monologue is undeniably awesome. But, despite Neeson’s top-notch work and the thrills-a-second pace, it’s still an outrageously silly and redundant film with head-scratching coincidences. The fact that so many people even consider this as one of Neeson’s best films is astonishing. It’s fun – but that’s it.
[Strengths] Neeson’s deep voice, towering presence and warm character has made him a default choice for many filmmakers looking to cast a mentor or father-figure to their film’s leading men. I like to think of him as a modern day Gregory Peck. Among the list of films he’s played these parts include Star Wars: Episode I, Batman Begins, Gangs of New York, Kingdom of Heaven, Love Actually, and Clash of the Titans. These attributes have also made him a natural for real-life figures like Oskar Schindler, Rob Roy, Michael Collins, Alfred Kinsey and if it weren’t for schedule conflicts, Abraham Lincoln too! Neeson qualities have also enabled him to excel in roles as grizzled action heroes – taking on the mantle of Charles Bronson as the older, thinking man’s go-to guy in the Taken series.
[Criticisms] Perhaps fearing being pigeon-holed as a mentor figure for the rest of his career, Neeson’s career took a sudden detour after the runaway success of Taken. Unfortunately, it’s taken a turn for the worst since almost everything he’s made since that action movie has either been garbage or glorified trash. Is anyone going to remember Chloe, Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, Unknown even this week’s Battleship in the next few years? I don’t have high hopes for Taken 2 either.
[Chief Collaborators] Neeson doesn’t seem like the actor who seeks out to work with the same filmmakers over and over again. Among actors, only Ralph Fiennes, his co-star in Schindler’s List, Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans, and fellow Irish actor Brendan Gleeson (mostly in small supporting roles) have worked with him more than twice. After the critical success of The Grey, it’s a good bet that Neeson will likely team up with his The A-Team director Joe Carnahan once again.
Though the blockbusters may bring in hefty paychecks, Neeson needs to alternate those cash-grabs with the strong roles he built his career on. The Grey was a nice reminder of how good he can be when paired with the right role but he needs to get out of playing the action hero already. It really was a tragedy that he missed out on the title role in Spielberg’s Lincoln as it might have brought him his long over-due Oscar. Also, a comedy or two couldn’t hurt.
[WHAT’S NEXT] Taken 2 in which Neeson reprises his role as the patron saint of AARP-eligible badasses, and Non-Stop, where he plays an air marshal who has to kick ass and take names aboard a hijacked flight. In other words, Taken 3.