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.