How did that nice Liam Neeson become a psychopathic killing machine?
YOU WILL BE familiar with the stock scene, more often parodied than it is staged sincerely, that finds the plain secretary pulling off her glasses, shaking down her hair and emerging as a gleaming goddess. “Why, Miss Price, we never imagined. You are quite beautiful,” actors rarely actually say.
Something vaguely similar happened to Liam Neeson in early 2009. To that point, the enormous Northern Irish actor was best known for playing men of quiet integrity in big, serious films. He was Oscar-nominated for Schindler’s List. He towered charismatically in Michael Collins. He voiced a leonine version of God in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Then he turned up in a scrappy, violent, dizzyingly ludicrous action thriller, Taken. Produced by Luc Besson, a master of applied vulgarity, the film found Neeson becoming peeved when a bunch of Albanian gangsters made away with his teenage daughter. He did not phone victim support. He did not contact Spider-Man. He grabbed every firearm in western Europe and began slaughtering his way towards his unfortunate offspring. The cutpurses of Tirana still quake at Neeson’s name.
Besson’s less highbrow films generally make most of their money through what the trade papers call ancillary media. Often featuring limited actors such as the hypergeezer Jason Statham, they pick up decent trade at the cinemas and then triumph on DVD and video download. But, to the surprise of everybody, Taken became a smash in cinemas across the globe. Even more astonishing, despite its European setting and despite having emerged months after its release in the “rest of the world”, the picture was disproportionately huge in the US.
Promoting Taken 2, which emerged this week, Neeson, not for the first time, infuriated his handlers by referring to the challenges the first film’s release pattern threw up.
“We were all pleasantly surprised, because the film came out in France first, and it was reasonably successful,” he said. “And then you could download it on your computer. I know that because my nephews in Ireland and England were calling me up, saying, ‘Yeah, we saw your movie.’ I said, ‘Which one?’ and they said, ‘Taken’. I said, ‘You couldn’t have done. It hasn’t opened yet.’ ‘Uh, we saw it on the computer.’ ”
The film’s success launched Neeson, who was then 56, as a proper action star. It’s worth clarifying what that now means. Yes, Cary Grant was a sort of action hero in Charade and in North By Northwest. Sure, Henry Fonda brandished guns in My Darling Clementine. But those films were still recognisable as dramas. Since the 1980s, when pictures such as Die Hard and The Terminator changed the game, action films have developed into terrifyingly efficient mincing machines that sacrifice character and plot for a hungry embrace of viscera-drenched mayhem.
The only significant snippets of dialogue are those that work as sardonic quips or bellicose statements of intent. Neeson’s most famous speech in Taken falls into the latter category. “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want,” he growls at the villains before going on to confirm that he is never likely to take up a career in conflict resolution. “I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you,” he concludes.
Since the success of Taken, Neeson has fought maritime aliens in Battleship, man-eating wolves in The Grey, more European maniacs in Unknown, various rebellious deities in Clash of the Titans and somebody or other in that putrid retread of The A-Team. Bruce Willis never kicked so much butt. Schwarzenegger took more deep breaths between eviscerations.
Why, Mr Neeson, we never imagined. You are a ruthless, near-psychopathic killing machine.
Other stars have made a similar swerve towards action, but rarely from such an unlikely start and almost never so late in their careers.
When Nicolas Cage arrived, with films such as Rumble Fish and Birdy, he looked like a serious performer who would forge a living in Oscar bait and sensitive independent dramas. His appearance in The Rock a decade later looked like a holiday from proper acting. Now he is incapable of appearing before a camera in anything other than a torn vest and an overstuffed bandolier. Bruce Willis began as a class of light comedian. Vin Diesel wanted to be Robert De Niro.
SO HOW DIDthis happen to Neeson? Well, Taken was not his first pure action role. As long ago as 1986, he took an uncredited part opposite Chuck Norris, as emperor of Kill City, in the absurd anti-classic The Delta Force. Four years later he was the lead in Sam Raimi’s engaging, camp Darkman. He essayed the lead in Rob Roy.
He was, however, still playing human beings in those films. Besson saw the potential to make him into a motorised annihilator fuelled by unleaded vengeance. Putting most facetiousness aside, it must be acknowledged that he is damn good at his new job.
The key to Neeson’s success is, of course, his Northern Irishness. In few other parts of the world is irony buried beneath such near-impenetrable strata of suspicion and evasion. The siege mentality common to both “communities” has fostered a studied wariness that can easily be mistaken for hostility.
One might argue that the best performance Neeson has delivered over the past decade was his brilliant cameo in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s otherwise disappointing TV show Life’s Too Short.
In the segment, Neeson explains to the writers, playing themselves, that he is harbouring an urge to pursue comedy. Speaking in that paradoxically lucid mumble, he comes across as the most hilariously unfunny performer this side of Adam Sandler. It’s a very discombobulating turn. To be this comically mordant, you need a very well developed, even if profoundly concealed, sense of humour.
Very little of that elusive wit has been allowed to seep through on screen. Indeed, despite recently allowing it to be inferred that he was thinking of converting to Islam, Neeson has a reputation for carrying out interviews in the same timbre that teenagers use when asked to explain why their breath smells of cider. Then, unexpectedly, he’ll blurt out something priceless concerning, say, illegal downloading. Everything about his public persona speaks of unplumbed depths.
He is, in other words, an old-school action star. Long before the ironic quip became the mulch of action cinema, heavies such as Lee Marvin, James Coburn and George Raft were clobbering antagonists without ever breaking into a smile.If you want that class of grim-mouthed, sour-browed malcontent then look no farther than the top quarter of this otherwise jolly island. When Martin McGuinness makes a joke it sounds like a threat; if Peter Robinson ever attempts such frivolity we’ll let you know how he comes across.
Unlike Jason Statham or Chuck Norris, both of whom are martial-arts wizards, Neeson has not achieved action fame as a result of his physical prowess. He did train as a boxer, but the fight scenes in Taken and Taken 2 comprise such short takes they could be comfortably accomplished by your least imposing maiden aunt. It’s his manner that matters.
Besson, who, for all his flaws, is no fool, cleverly realised that we’d had enough of tongue-in-cheek avengers and he looked around for an actor who could kill with a straight face. We can’t blame Liam for stepping up to the bloody plate. Playing Oskar Schindler wins you awards. Playing Bart the Slayer makes you a household name in Tuna Fish, Iowa, Henan province and those parts of the western Sahara that have internet connections. This could run.
Taken 2 is on general release
‘I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you’: Film’s best-ever heavies
For all his success in Taken and, we’re betting, this week’s Taken 2, Neeson is not really a joshing action star in the mode of Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone. He is an old-school heavy. He plays the hard-faced, shop-worn bloke who can’t decide whether killing is an appalling chore or something to relish. Here are the best of the bunch.
A versatile actor, Mitchum popped up in dramas such as Ryan’s Daughter, but he was at his best when threatening minor hoods or bullying blameless children. Tough in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Truly horrible in The Night of the Hunter. Heaviest moment: going after Gregory Peck’s daughter in Cape Fear.
He became a bit of a joke in later years, but the former Charles Buchinsky was once rougher and scarier than an advancing army of Cossacks. Check him out as Vincent Price’s sidekick in House of Wax and as the surly ex-miner in The Dirty Dozen. Heaviest moment: exacting revenge on Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West.
If you know two things about George Raft you know that, surprisingly, he was a fine dancer and, less surprisingly, he had real-life connections with the Mob. Though James Cagney was the better actor, Raft was the more terrifying heavy.
Heaviest moment: playing it straight in the bizarrely violent opening of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot.
An absolute legend. Charming in films such as The Great Escape, the long-faced Californian seemed like an entirely different fellow when playing a Wehrmacht corporal in Cross of Iron or an Irish revolutionary in A Fistful of Dynamite (aka Duck, You Sucker). Heaviest moment: finally doing away with Kris Kristofferson in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
There is only one contender for the heaviest heavy of them all. All other heavies are, by comparison, lightweights. For proof look to The Killers, Point Blank, The Big Red One and The Dirty Dozen. Having served gallantly in the second World War, Marvin was the real thing. Heaviest moment: throwing a pot of coffee in Gloria Grahame’s face in The Big Heat.