“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.”
It’s the monologue that would redefine a career, as 2008’s Taken saw Liam Neeson, previously known as a solemn, melancholy character actor (with a Best Actor nomination for his dignified turn as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List), transform into a lanky, gruff, uncompromising action star.
At the time, it felt like a momentary departure for the man, a $25 million lark coasting on the success of the Bourne films and making expert use of Neeson’s sequoia-tall frame and voice like crackling bark (it’s no surprise he’d later play a talking tree in 2016’s fantasy tearjerker A Monster Calls). But as fate would have it, Taken would make more than $200 million at the box office, and a franchise — and subgenre — would be born.
By 2022, Neeson would star in around fifteen films that could qualify, in one form or another, as a Taken-y action movie (or, as Nate Fisher would dub them at RogerEbert.com, the “January Neesons”), with a variety of directors and a wide variety of budgets.
The ingredients are simple: Cast Neeson as an over-the-hill spy, ex-cop, or other expert in the rarefied field of dispensing violence. Give him some kind of physical or emotional impairment: He’s an alcoholic, he’s got a tragic past, dead or estranged relatives, financial troubles. Sometimes, you can make him lose his memory (as this week’s new release, Memory, does), or even his identity. But no matter what contrivances or obstacles you put in his path, he’ll weather them and even overcome them — even if he doesn’t always make it to the end.
What sets these apart from a lot of other middling actioners like it is, of course, Neeson himself, a man with the build of an action star but the quiet dignity and brittleness of a trained Shakespearean actor. Neeson, who grew up in Ireland, trained as a boxer and worked as a forklift driver for Guinness (how Irish is this guy?) before moving into theater and eventually finding starring roles on film in works like Under Suspicion and Nell.
He carries himself with immense precision, his sad eyes and grimacing face as capable of remarkable tenderness as it is murderous rage. His action heroes are broken, torn-down men, worn by age and drink and despair, the plots of these movies often involving late-in-life attempts at redemption for the things he’s done.
Even in the worst of these, it’s Neeson who holds all the ramshackle pieces together. And in the best of these (particularly his long collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra, who calibrates the Taken persona into more intriguing and genre-fueled directions in the mid-2010s)? He’s magnificent.
In celebration of hitting fifteen movies where a man in his late sixties still murders folks with all the skill of Jack Bauer, we’ve decided to run down the list of the Neeson-led action films, the times where he took a break from playing holy men (Silence) and romantic leads (Love, Actually) to dispense justice on the wicked and defend the innocent. And maybe, just maybe, giving his own crumbling body a moment of peace.
15. Memory (2022)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Alex Lewis, an elderly assassin who’ll take any job and get it done…. unless it involves killing kids.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? As a professional killer, he’s handy with a pistol and not a bad driver to boot. But unfortunately, his old age has added another handicap to his toolbox: advanced Alzheimer’s, leading him to occasionally lapse and forget where he is or why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Who’s He Avenging? A 13-year-old victim of sex trafficking he was assigned to kill, and who was murdered by the underlings of an unscrupulous businesswoman (Monica Bellucci).
The Verdict: Neeson’s worst movies in this vein are, unfortunately, his most recent: Memory qualifies as the bottom of the barrel thanks to a clunky, overlong script (the movie clocks in at two hours) and some cheap DTV filmmaking that not even Bond director extraordinaire Martin Campbell can save.
But maybe the most tragic part of his is Neeson, or rather, the lack of him: when he’s on screen, playing a bit with his gruff-killer persona with moments of confusion and vulnerability, it ain’t bad. But really, the film’s protagonist isn’t Neeson, but Guy Pearce as a haggard FBI agent trying to break up Bellucci’s crime syndicate, which means the scenes with Neeson are sandwiched between tedious police procedurals with Pearce, who gets so little to work with. The idea of an old assassin who’s still got a quick trigger-finger, but a failing memory, is interesting, but it’s wasted on such a humdrum story.
14. Blacklight (2022)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Travis Block, a Vietnam War vet turned FBI fixer looking to retire and spend more time with his daughter and granddaughter.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? The usual gunplay and bombmaking stuff, nothing too special.
Who’s He Avenging? A political activist and a rogue FBI agent, respectively, who were about to spill the beans on a secret government project that sought to kill innocent civilians for speaking out against the government.
The Verdict: Let’s be honest; no one has seen Blacklight, including this intrepid writer. Co-writer/director Mark Williams will make some slightly more interesting stuff later on this list, but consider this one a casualty of the $20-a-ticket VOD pricing we’re dealing with in this post-COVID era, even for movies as inconsequential as this one.
13. Taken 3 (2014)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Bryan Mills, ex-CIA spook, ex-husband, last place for the Father of the Year Award.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? All the skills he had in the first two Takens, with some fun new ones including waterboarding and crashing sports cars into private jets. He also knows exactly how to lure his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) into contact with him: poison the “peach yogurt drink” she takes from the exact same cooler at the exact same bodega every day, then ambush her in the bathroom with the antidote.
The Verdict: Yes, this is the one with the infamous sequence where it takes director Oliver Megaton fifteen cuts to show Liam Neeson climbing over a chain-link fence. Apart from the ostensible giggles that provides, this one clearly shows the series’ age; Neeson’s not into it anymore, Kim continues to be deeply annoying, and not even the introduction of Forest Whitaker as a Javert-like pursuer for Mills can make things any easier.
Megaton’s one of the worst directors for Neeson, cutting through all his lanky brawls and fistfights as if he’d thrown all the dailies in a blender, laid it out, and sent it to print. That said, I’m dying to know what “peach yogurt drink” is, and why no one will say the brand name.
12. The Ice Road (2021)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Mike McCann, an everyday working Joe at the end of a long career as an ice-road trucker with little to show for it, besides his PTSD and aphasia-addled brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas).
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? Driving a truck, mostly? Thankfully, the movies where Liam Neeson drives a big truck are refreshingly bereft of a Hidden Past as a Secret Badass.
Who’s He Avenging? Not avenging, per se, but racing along frozen lakes to transport wellheads to Manitoba so they can rescue 26 miners (led by Holt McCallany) trapped after a methane explosion.
The Verdict: Netflix gets in on the Liam Neeson racket with this one, and despite some nifty genre conventions (this is way more Wages of Fear than Taken) it still moves along at a snail’s pace. It’s slow, for one, and the supporting cast can’t quite give him much to bounce off of (save for maybe Laurence Fishburne, who gets an ‘and’ credit even though he croaks before the first act is done).
The hokey VFX doesn’t help, nor does the creaky treatment of disability the film gives poor Gurty, whose dialogue doesn’t mimic the patterns of aphasia as much as it makes him sound like Trucker Yoda. Deeply forgettable, even for a film of this ilk.
11. Honest Thief (2020)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Tommy Dolan, otherwise known as the In-And-Out Bandit, who robbed 18 banks over the course of his lifetime and always got away with it… until a late-in-life romance with Annie (Kate Walsh), an aspiring psychotherapist who works at the storage unit he squirrels his nest egg in, makes him decide to come clean to the authorities and go straight. See? He’s an HONEST. THIEF.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? While he’s implicitly really good at robbing banks, there’s very little thievery in Honest Thief. Instead, Tommy shows suspiciously Bryan Mills-ian skills with a gun and a steering wheel.
Who’s He Avenging? In a weird way, Robert Patrick, who plays an FBI agent murdered by a couple of rogue agents (Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos) who decide to pocket Tommy’s millions instead of turning it in. Pinned for the murder instead, he’s got to go on the run to clear his name and protect Annie after she finds herself in the crosshairs as well.
The Verdict: Williams’ first go-round with Neeson is decent enough, despite some visibly cheap digital filmmaking and uninspiring supporting turns from Ramos and Courtney. (Jeffrey Donovan’s cute, though, as a grumpy but sympathetic FBI agent stuck with his ex-wife’s equally cute Shih Tzu, Tazzy.)
Still, what elevates the proceedings is Walsh’s sparky turn as Annie, one of the few romantic interests in Neeson’s oeuvre to have both chemistry with the guy and an inner life of her own. It’s still Redbox fodder through and through, but I almost wish there was a version of this that didn’t have to turn into a big shoot-em-up. Though I guess that’s just David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun. I just wanna see if these two crazy kids make it, that’s all!
10. The Marksman (2021)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Jim Hanson, a Vietnam War vet, widower, alcoholic, and Marine Corps sniper extraordinaire — that’s Neeson bingo! He’s living out his golden years patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border with his adorable dog, Jackson, reporting illegal crossings to Border Patrol.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? As the title implies, he’s a crack shot, plus the usual Neeson talent tree of “punch and drive good.” Plus, he’s seemingly fueled by his deep and abiding love for Chicago hot dogs, which are the Best Thing Ever (and about which he gushes in one scene with all the zeal of someone who’s read about a Chicago hot dog once).
Who’s He Avenging? But his life gets exceedingly complicated when a woman (Teresa Ruiz) and her young boy (Jacob Perez’s Miguel) beg for his help after escaping a dangerous drug cartel. Soon enough, the mother is dead, and Jim’s found himself promising he’ll get Miguel to Chicago. Not an easy feat, considering the kid’s still undocumented and the cartel are still hot on their heels.
The Verdict: There are more than a few superficial similarities between The Marksman and Clint Eastwood’s final film to date, Cry Macho — two movies about old cowpokes going on a road trip with a Mexican son figure he’s tasked with protecting. And considering director Robert Lorenz is a frequent producer/acolyte of Eastwood’s, those comparisons aren’t far off.
As these go, it’s a nifty little neo-Western that makes deceptively strong use of Neeson’s creeping fragility as the man approaches his seventies, even if it falls along a lot of predictable lines. Still, he’ll do this “broken man trying to do good by others using his horrible talents” thing far better in much more dramatically exciting films.
9. Taken 2 (2012)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Bryan Mills again, hoping feebly to return to a normal life after trotting out his particular skills the year before to rescue his daughter Kim from Eastern European sex slavers. Now, he’s trying to keep her from the true threats that face his daughter: her driving test, and the apocalyptic encroachment of… boyfriends.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? Alongside the usual stuff, Taken 2 expands his ability to give Kim spy-guy instructions over the phone, but this time flipped on its head as he has to instruct her on the best way to save him and Lenore when they get captured in the middle act. That includes listening to exploding grenades at different distances to gauge his location, figuring out which pipes to hit to billow more steam from the building they’re in, and making judicious, stabby use of a towel hook.
Who’s He Avenging? This time, he’s the target of revenge, in the crosshairs of the fathers of all the poor sex-trading Estonian lads Mills shot and electrocuted in the first one (led by the always-reliable Rade Šerbedžija).
The Verdict: The Taken sequels stumble most in two respects: trying to blandly replicate the exact formula of the first Taken, and hiring Oliver Megaton to take over the director’s chair from Pierre Morel. His unique maximalism leans into the worst trends of the post-Bourne action era of the 2000s, though his whip-crack editing isn’t nearly as bad here as it is in 3.
Still, what puts this firmly at the top of the bottom tier of Neeson actioners is that aforementioned second act, which recognizes the One Scene People Remember from Taken, reverses the positions, and draws it out to a delightfully extended sequence where Kim suddenly has to become the action hero with her dad’s tutelage. It’s tremendously exciting and suitably tense, which makes the two acts around that sequence feel all the more perfunctory.
8. A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
Who Is Liam Neeson? The evocatively-named Matt Scudder, an ex-cop turned private eye with a reluctant sidekick in the streetwise TJ (YouTube rapper Astro).
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? A Jack Reacher-level way with fisticuffs and deduction, not to mention a plain, to-the-point way of speaking, which seems endemic to the kind of hard-boiled detective thriller books from which Scudder originates.
Who’s He Avenging? The dismembered wife of a local drug trafficker (Dan Stevens), who hires Scudder to track down the killers. That, of course, leads him down a rabbit hole to a series of murders committed against young women, and his work quickly turns to trying to stop the culprits (one of whom is Stranger Things‘ David Harbour) from killing again.
The Verdict: Neeson actioners can take a variety of forms (straightforward EuropaCorp action, Hitchcockian suspense, black comedy, Western) but writer/director Scott Frank’s turn at the wheel is pure detective neo-noir, and it’s a pretty fulfilling example.
Neeson’s got the hangdog face and grizzled, broken down eyes of a man who’s seen too much, which makes him the perfect vehicle for a hardboiled gumshoe who’s also willing to get his hands dirty. It still plays into some creaky tropes — the innate deviance of its mentally unwell suspects, the lurid focus on the sexual abuse of children — but Frank makes great use of Neeson in a slower, more contemplative mode than many of the other films on this list.
7. Unknown (2011)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Dr. Martin Harris (or is he?) a researcher who travels to Berlin with his wife (January Jones) to attend a biotech summit, only to bonk his head in a car accident and lose four days of his life. When he awakes, he returns to the hotel to find that his wife no longer recognizes him, and there’s another Martin Harris (Aiden Quinn) standing there in his place.
Committed to solving the mystery of his identity, he’ll cross paths with the cab driver who was also involved in his accident (Diane Kruger) and unravel a plot surrounding the assassination of a benevolent Saudi prince.
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? Martin’s just an ordinary guy at first, but as he learns more about who he truly is, he learns that he’s got bomb-making and ass-kicking abilities a lab geek wouldn’t normally possess.
Who’s He Avenging? Himself and his life, kinda? He sets out to clear his name and re-establish his identity at first; after he learns who he really is, he decides to redeem his past misdeeds by stopping the murder scheme he once helped set in motion.
The Verdict: Neeson’s first collab with Brazilian director Jaume Collet-Serra is our Hitchcock in its commitment to moment-by-moment intrigue, and Neeson gets to play more notes of befuddlement and confusion than he normally does in pictures like these.
It helps that he’s surrounded by a lovely cast who get their own room to play (the film’s best scene may just be a chat between Frank Langella as a former colleague of Harris’, and Bruno Ganz as an old Stasi spy who takes an interest in his case), and it leans headlong into the various contrivances required for a plot this preposterous.
But even then, the script, like some of its cinematography, gets a little too hazy for its own good, and the pile of coincidences and logical leaps required to keep the narrative engine running eventually breaks down the narrative machinery. Still, even Neeson’s worst with Collet-Serra is still a rollicking good time.
6. Cold Pursuit (2019)
Who Is Liam Neeson? Nels Coxman (yes, really), a mild-mannered snowplow driver who’s spent decades clearing the long road from Denver to his sleepy ski-resort hometown of Kehoe. He’s married to Laura Dern(!) and was just named “Citizen of the Year” by the people of Kehoe. What a guy!
What’s His Particular Set of Skills? Mostly? Driving a snowplow. Oh, and reading enough crime novels to know how to turn his hunting rifle into a sawed-off short-ranged weapon, not to mention how best to dispose of a body (wrap it in chicken wire and dump it in the river; the fish will strip the flesh clean so it never floats to the top).
Who’s He Avenging? His son, Kyle (Liam’s real boy Micheál Richardson), who dies of an apparent heroin overdose, but was really offed by a Denver-based drug cartel for unknowingly botching a smuggled shipment.
The Verdict: Despite (or because of) Neeson’s well-worn grittiness and intensity, the right person can use him like gangbusters in a comedy. And really, that’s what Hans Petter Moland’s remake of his own excellent 2014 crime comedy In Order of Disappearance gets right: it’s a Coenesque tale of mistaken motivations, double-crosses, and criminals with colorful personalities and goofy nicknames like “Viking,” “Limbo,” “Santa” and “Speedo.”
It’s a Neeson actioner in the most technical of senses; Nels isn’t an ex-CIA badass, but just an ordinary guy with severe emotional disconnects and a thirst for revenge — something that throws off the feuding, bickering drug gangs who get the bulk of the screentime in the latter half. Whether he’s struggling to scoot his first dead body into a van, or trying feebly to get along with his nemesis’ pampered 8-year-old after kidnapping him, Neeson gets to play a few more comedic layers than he normally gets to.
It meanders a bit too much as it goes on, and it doesn’t hold a candle to the Stellan Skarsgard-starring original, but its arch tone and playful poking at Neeson’s grizzled action persona make it something special.