The evolution of Liam Neeson into an unlikely action hero


Liam Neeson leads a new action thriller coming to cinemas this month. The Marksman sees Neeson play a rancher who becomes the unlikely defender of a young Mexican boy desperately fleeing cartel assassins. Daniel Rutledge charts the evolution of Neeson into one of the greatest action-thriller stars of the modern era – and yes, he will make mention of a very particular set of skills.

For a long, long time, Liam Neeson wasn’t a hard man. Mostly, he was Oskar Schindler, but he was also the greasy slasher director in The Dead Pool, the caring stepdad in Love Actually, the bookish sex nerd in Kinsey, and the funny looking long-haired Jedi in arguably the worst Star Wars movie.

But yeah, ever since I was blown away by Schindler’s List in the early ’90s, Neeson was mostly Schindler. It’s still my favourite performance of his. Most of the film’s impact comes from Steven Spielberg’s direction, but Neeson’s intense performance has so much beautiful sensitivity to it. He should’ve gotten the Oscar instead of Tom Hanks that year.

Um, there’s no way to say this without being insensitive, but being a Nazi in a film about a death camp and NOT killing anyone in it—indeed, stopping masses of people being killed instead—well that’s pretty damn far from the likes of Rambo or Commando. Schindler’s List is one of the most moving and thought-provoking films ever made, but none of those thoughts are ‘Liam Neeson is going to be a hard man action hero killing machine’.

Then 2008 came along.

About 15 years after his role as Schindler, Neeson dramatically changed his career and his entire persona with one single film. He morphed from cinema’s most sensitive pacifist Nazi into one of the greatest action-thriller stars of the modern era, immediately becoming king of the family-in-jeopardy subgenre. And he did it largely thanks to one particularly great monologue:

“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom I can tell you I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you; but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.”

Taken is a fairly paint-by-numbers action flick that uses the hugely well-trodden formula of a desperate daddy doing whatever it takes to save his child after bad guys kidnap them. The action in it is fine but not special, the story is very unremarkable—but Neeson shines brightly in the lead role that transformed his career. He’s great for the whole running time, but he really knocked it out of the park with that famous monologue. It became genuinely iconic and has been quoted endlessly over the years since the film’s release, as well as being sampled in plenty of dance music tracks.

At the time it came out, there was a lot of novelty value in Neeson playing a hard man making mincemeat out of Eastern European human traffickers. “Isn’t that the soft old dude from Love Actually, lol”, we all exclaimed. But it bloody worked and no one could deny it. As well as the inevitable rip-offs, Taken spawned a few disappointing sequels, but also a large number of similarly formulaic action-thriller flicks that have serious old Neeson frowning all the time while running around killing criminal scum and saving his family. It’s practically its own sub-genre now.

Which brings me to The Marksman, the latest Neeson hard man action star movie, heading to cinemas in Aotearoa before the end of the month. If Non-Stop was Taken on a plane and The Commuter was Taken on a train, The Marksman is Taken on an interstate road trip. Instead of Eastern European human traffickers, it’s Mexican cartel enforcers and instead of his daughter, it’s a kid who those monsters want to kill. They want to make an example of some relative who wronged them, so the kid has to die—but not if Neeson can stop them.

It’s more of a thriller than full-blown action and has some great, edge-of-your-seat suspense sequences in it. But don’t worry, like Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand, Stallone in Rambo 5, and Adkins in Close Range among many other examples, Neeson wastes a bunch of cartel meanies in this one. He wastes them real good.

Neeson plays Jim Hanson, an honest bloke who wears a cowboy hat, raises and lowers Old Glory at his ranch every day, likes his steak rare and his whiskey straight. He doesn’t talk with some weird drawly accent, he talks like Liam Neeson does in every movie. He’s a former marine, served in ‘Nam and is a bit of a deadeye dick with a rifle, so look out any predators he finds having a go at the stock on his ranch. Or, of course, cartel killers wanting to slay an innocent child.

My references to beefcake action stars in other movies aren’t really apt for this one. Who Hanson is, his story arc in The Marksman, and the script’s multiple references to his age make Unforgiven-era Clint Eastwood a much fairer comparison. His encounters with the cartel aren’t entirely restricted to his using his titular rifle skills and do require he get his fists flying a bit, but he doesn’t pop his shirt off at all and is mostly trying to evade the baddies rather than eradicate them.

And as familiar as this latest Neeson film may feel, especially early on, the third act pulls off a few interesting subversions that make it a bit of a deeper experience. There’s no iconic monologue like there is in Taken, but The Marksman could just be another evolution in Neeson’s career, albeit a more subtle one than the drastic handbrake turn of 2008. If he’s about to star in a slew of more thoughtful action-thrillers in which his old age plays a more prominent part of the film, if he really is moving into late-career Eastwood mode—well, I’m sure as hell here for it.