Could this be the end of our man Liam Neeson as the action hero of the moment? Neeson himself has recently speculated that he may only have a few more years of this kind of work in him, but there are signs it may end sooner. He doesn’t have a major action movie on the docket; his major 2016 release will be Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating Silence. Meanwhile, he’s wrapped up a couple of trilogies: Taken 3 seemed to put the series to rest this past January, while Run All Night completes an unofficial trilogy of films with director Jaume Collett-Sera, who also made Unknown ($63 million domestic!) and Non-Stop ($92 million domestic!). Moreover, Run All Night failed to set the box office aflame last weekend when it opened (likely final gross: $30 million domestic!), as did A Walk Among the Tombstones last fall ($26 million domestic!), curtailing hopes for a new franchise based on the many Matt Scudder novels.
If Neeson does go back to his previous mixture of indie work and supporting roles in blockbusters (keep in mind: dude has mentored both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Batman), his late-breaking action hero status will still stand as a hell of a run.
We’re said to be out of the age of movie stars, when Toms Cruise or Hanks could virtually guarantee $100 million domestic just by showing up. But star power still exists; it just can’t light up a whole blockbuster anymore (and really, is that so bad? That most people seemingly won’t pay to see a movie just because it stars a particular actor? I think of the movies I’ve seen because I like the actors involved, and I shake my head sadly). Witness The Grey, a bleak and wintry survival story with plenty of maudlin Irish wallowing that grossed $51 million in the US, pretty much just because it starred a post-Taken Neeson. $51 million is no longer a large sum, but consider The Grey with someone else in the lead role; it’s hard to imagine it making it past 200 screens, let alone the 3,000-plus that it actually managed. Also consider Serena, a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, that is getting only a limited theatrical release next weekend. Maybe Neeson could have somehow gotten that movie into wide release.
Because he’s seen his greatest success with Taken movies from the Luc Besson/EuroaCorp junk factory, Neeson has been branded by many (including me, above) as an action star. But really, it’s more complicated than simply plugging him into a search-and-rescue story. You could bemoan that we haven’t seen Neeson in a tonier movie like Schindler’s List or even Rob Roby (he was attached for years to Spielberg’s Lincoln, but the project eventually went forward without him, though if you’re gonna get replaced, probably Daniel Day-Lewis is a replacement that shouldn’t make you feel too bad), but as schlocky as the Taken movies are, a lot of what Neeson stars in these days is exactly what Hollywood has been chastised, rightly so, for avoiding: mid-level mainstream movies without a lot of special effects, aimed at adults. Of course, these chastisements are probably, for the most part, not thinking wistfully of a world with more Non-Stops. But Non-Stop, whatever its commercial aims, does not seem principally targeted at teenagers. In fact, a common thread running through many of Neeson’s best recent projects is a very adult sense of regret and loss. Taken‘s Bryan Mills is a righteous family protector, but he begins the first movie alienated and out of touch with his daughter and ex-wife. Those qualities are exacerbated in the past year of Neeson’s filmography: his characters in Non-Stop, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and Run All Night are all alcoholics, all moving heavily with regret, often over poor parenting (his Matt Scudder in Tombstones actually seems the best-adjusted of the three, because at least his alcoholism and accompanying tragedy—he accidentally shot and killed an innocent bystander in pursuit of a criminal—remains in his past, and the movie finds him attending AA).
In fact, one reason Run All Night doesn’t quite fit in with the other two Collett-Sera pictures is its mournfulness. Neeson’s Jimmy Conlon is a sad and washed-up old man, forced into action, as Neeson heroes often are, to protect his son Mike (Joel Kinnaman). The movie’s eventual bad guy Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) is actually more upstanding and together than Jimmy, at least on the surface: Shawn has seen success as a gangster and, the movie implies, has moved on from his criminal past. He lives in a nice house with his wife and refuses a role in current drug deals. Jimmy, meanwhile, goes begging to Shawn’s nasty son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) when he needs money to fix his busted heater, and remains haunted by the lives he took on Shawn’s behalf. When Mike witnesses Danny committing murder, Mike tries to kill Danny, Jimmy kills Danny instead, and Shawn insists that Jimmy and Mike must both die. So there are shoot-outs and chases, yes, but also sad conversations between old friends, and a sense that Jimmy may be sacrificing himself to keep his son’s hands clean.
Set against the backdrop of a Rangers/Devils game blaring from multiple TV sets, Run All Night lacks the understated confidence of Tombstones, a better New York crime thriller. Collett-Sera doesn’t really have a feel for the textures of grounded gangster drama; Unknown and Non-Stop had neo-Hitchcockian hooks (wrong-man and locked-room thrillers, respectively) that took better advantage of pulpy showmanship. Here, that quality enlivens the material even as it kinda-sorta undermines it. Yet the fact that Collett-Sera’s movies are often fun doesn’t detract as much as it probably should; though Neeson plays this stuff with absolute seriousness, his movies rarely feel oppressively grim. That, I think, is where his true star power lies: though he rarely seems to relish his on-screen acts of violence, he goes through it with such determination, even when guilt-wracked; with that authoritative brogue-ish voice and unfussy physicality, he powers through a lot of potential slogging with charisma, not fancy fight choreography.
It is, as they say, a very particular set of skills. Neeson’s success in the old-guy-killing-dudes field has inspired a number of middle-aged actors to get in on the game; this week brings Sean Penn working with Taken director Pierre Morel on The Gunman. I wasn’t able to find a screening of it, but it looks, somehow, more dour than the Neeson action cycle, even though most of those movies are, as mentioned, about broken-down alcoholics. It’s not at all difficult to picture Sean Penn wracked with guilt, half-destroyed by alcoholism, plotting revenge, and/or angrily mourning a lost child (he even won an Oscar for the latter). Yet it is kind of difficult to picture Sean Penn in a Liam Neeson movie. Maybe he pulls it off in The Gunman, or maybe The Gunman really is the international espionage thriller the trailer hints at in between bouts of old-guy ass-kicking. But either way, it seems unlikely to kick off a new phase of Penn’s career. Neeson may get some guff for overcrowding the market with movies that likely paid him a goodly sum of money, but he earns his paycheck with the deceptive effort of a real star.