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The surprisingly durable second act of Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson reprises his old-school action hero ways in “The Ice Road,” which debuts June 25 on Netflix. (Allen Fraser/Netflix)

There was once a time when Liam Neeson was utterly terrified of Mia Farrow.

The same Mia Farrow whose slightness made her a pixie-cut icon in “Rosemary’s Baby,” looking utterly vulnerable to the encroaching forces of evil. The same one who stands a full foot shorter than the 6-foot-4 Neeson, and whose lilting voice quivers against the head winds of his sonorous baritone.

And yet in “Husbands and Wives,” the unvarnished Woody Allen drama they made together in 1992, it’s Farrow who gets the upper hand. Stuck in a foundering marriage, Farrow’s character is drawn into a destructive love triangle, competing with a friend (Judy Davis) over Neeson’s handsome magazine editor. It’s too much for Neeson, who falls hard for Farrow, but shrinks in the face of all this domestic conflict. He’s too sensitive to handle it.

The surprise second act of Neeson’s career, which continues this week with the Netflix thriller “The Ice Road,” has left the old Neeson of historical dramas (“Schindler’s List,” “Kinsey,” “Michael Collins”) and lighter fare (“Love Actually”) behind, rebranding him as a quiet, lean, ruthlessly efficient action star in the mold of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. He has gotten the best of Albanian sex traffickers, cartel enforcers from Mexico and Colorado, innumerable European henchmen, plane hijackers, gangsters, and packs of snarling wolves in the Alaskan wilderness. And although he also finds work as a dramatic actor and voice talent, audiences have come to anticipate the steady churn of action movies with Neeson in the lead role.

Although Neeson had proved himself a capable fighter in the past — the title role in “Darkman,” a Jedi master in the first Star Wars prequel and the supervillain Ra’s al Ghul in “Batman Begins,” to name a few — he fully reinvented himself in his mid-50s, with the hit 2008 thriller “Taken.” It may have seemed like a novelty act at the time, but in the 13 years since, he has been credibly breaking bones and shooting scoundrels at about a movie-a-year pace. This second act has developed its own mini-arc, one that speaks to Neeson’s evolving presence as an action star and to the shifting priorities of the Hollywood studio system, which is no longer able to accommodate him.

In fact, none of this would have happened if not for the French. Although “Taken” feels like a quintessentially American film, like Bronson’s “Death Wish” on a European vacation, it started with Luc Besson, the prolific writer, producer and director who revolutionized French mainstream filmmaking with “La Femme Nikita” in 1990. Besson has worked in and out of Hollywood for decades — “The Professional,” “The Fifth Element” and “Lucy” are his, among dozens of others — and his EuropaCorp film company has turned out the mid-budget, English-language genre fare now rarely produced in the United States. “Taken” opened in France almost a full year before Twentieth Century Fox slipped it into theaters in late January, a slot traditionally reserved as a dumping ground for studio embarrassments.

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That “Taken” was a smash proved that Besson, who co-wrote the script and produced the film for director Pierre Morel, had a keener understanding of American appetites than Hollywood did. As a former Green Beret and CIA officer who hunts down the sex traffickers who kidnapped his 17-year-old daughter in Paris, Neeson established a template that would repeat itself in roles to come: the bruised loner with “a particular set of skills,” either divorced or widowed or otherwise emotionally inaccessible, with a sense of justice that places him outside the law. There’s still that residue of sensitivity that separates Neeson from the more coldblooded action stars of the past — he’s still that humble dad, vying for a place in his daughter’s life — but he’s ruthless and resourceful in the field, a steely-eyed creature of vengeance.

Building a franchise around the very specific premise of a family member getting kidnapped is every bit as strained as it sounds, but about $225 million in worldwide grosses led to two sequels and an origin-story series on NBC without Neeson. “Taken 2” staged another kidnapping under the hilariously ludicrous premise that the father of the villain in “Taken” would want to avenge the unjust death of his generic sleazebag sex-trafficking son. For its part, “Taken 3” prayed that having a couple of characters tossed into a van would be enough to serve the title.

Although the Taken movies are mostly risible, Neeson’s persona connected with audiences and his old-school masculinity inspired more talented filmmakers to seize on his popularity. Director Joe Carnahan cast him as John “Hannibal” Smith in his disposable big-screen revival of “The A-Team,” but both men seemed significantly more invested in “The Grey,” a survival film that pits Neeson’s huntsman and a team of Alaskan oil workers against a blizzard, multiple wolf packs and mutinies from within. Carnahan pitches the film like “Straw Dogs” gone wild, a rite of passage that reduces its hero to his most base instincts, getting to a place where there’s little separation between man and alpha wolf.

The pulpy thriller “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” from “Out of Sight” screenwriter Scott Frank, called on a particular set of acting skills that Neeson’s action films hadn’t yet required. As an alcoholic ex-detective turned private investigator, Neeson tries to figure out who abducted and killed a drug dealer’s wife, but it’s a personal journey of redemption, too, carried out by a man still numb with guilt and grief over past mistakes. He’s transformed into a modern noir hero.

The mass paperback quality of most Neeson thrillers probably accounts for why they’ve found such a consistent audience: He always delivers the goods. The four films he has made with the talented Spanish American craftsman Jaume Collet-Serra have titles so generic that they’re better remembered by their loglines. There’s the Hitchcockian one with the mistaken identity (“Unknown”), the one on the plane (“Non-Stop”), the one on the train (“The Commuter”), and the one where he’s a hit man pitted against his mob employer (“Run All Night”). All sleek and tightly constructed, all packed to the hilt with quality character actors, all the type of films you’d happily watch for half an hour before realizing you’d already rented them before.

There have been signs that interest in Neeson vehicles are on the wane, even as he has subtly edged into the types of roles that Eastwood played in recent films such as “Gran Torino” and “The Mule,” ornery older men who are brought reluctantly out of their shells. After the ho-hum “Cold Pursuit,” a note-for-note Americanization of a Norwegian thriller called “In Order of Disappearance,” Neeson snuck a couple of movies out during the coronavirus pandemic that signaled a shift away from physically demanding roles as he approaches 70, leaning more on his soulful, world-weary presence. “Honest Thief” is about a master thief who tries to turn over his ill-gotten millions to the FBI to start a new relationship on a clean slate, but two corrupt agents spoil his retirement plan. “The Marksman” finds him as a salty rancher on the Mexican border who summons the authorities when immigrants cross onto his property, but he makes an exception for a mother and son fleeing cartel violence.

All of these newer films fell to second-tier distributors such as Open Road or Lionsgate, because Hollywood doesn’t have an interest in the modest profit-turners that were the core of their business back when grizzled heroes like Neeson were more common. There’s hope that streaming services such as Netflix, with their ceaseless thirst for content, will step in with more movies like “The Ice Road” (out June 25) and serve a niche in the market. It’s only fitting that Neeson the action star is a gun for hire, drifting on the dusty margins of the industry and taking the jobs when they come.

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