Casting Liam Neeson in last year’s “The Lego Movie” was a brilliant move. The star voiced a schizoid cartoon character known as Bad Cop/Good Cop, a plastic action figure whose head swivels 180 degrees. On one side: a volatile, gruff-voiced interrogator in mirrored shades; on the other, a sensitive bookish type with a soft voice.
It was a tongue-in-cheek embrace of the Liam Neeson screen image of recent years: The gentle badass. It’s a deeply conflicted — and for some reason, deeply satisfying — persona we’ve seen in various guises, starting with the actor’s 2008 performance in “Taken,” in which he plays a retired CIA operative who metes out harsh and occasionally morally dubious justice when his family is threatened.
And we’ll see it again, no doubt, when “Taken 3” opens this weekend.
Is it really only “Taken 3”? Sometimes it feels more like “Taken 7,” at least if you’re counting the actor’s intervening performances in “Unknown,” “The Grey,” “Non-Stop” and “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” In each of those films, Neeson essentially plays a version of the same brooding, middle-aged tough guy with a troubled past (alcoholism, amnesia, divorce, loss, career disgrace) and a heart of gold. Call him the angsty action hero. Although Neeson has hinted that this may be his last official “Taken,” the 62-year-old actor isn’t exactly about to shift gears. His next film, “Run All Night,” due out in April, is said to be about — wait for it — an aging hit man who comes out of retirement to protect his family.
At first glance, these pulpy parts seem a far cry from the prestigious roles with which the actor was once associated: awards-bait performances in “Schindler’s List,” “Michael Collins,” “Les Misérables,” “Kinsey” and the like. Some might argue that the Oscar-nominated star of “Schindler’s List” has sold out, that he has allowed himself to be swallowed up by the Hollywood hack machine.
But has he? One of the reasons cited by the actor for taking on some of his more recent roles was that staying busy served as a form of emotional therapy after the 2009 death of his wife, actress Natasha Richardson.
In any event, he’s certainly not alone in the category of AARP-eligible actors who have tried to reinvent themselves as action stars.
Denzel Washington, the 60-year-old double Oscar winner (for “Glory” and “Training Day”), and Oscar nominee Kevin Costner (for “Dances With Wolves”), who turns 60 this month, both starred in films last year that sound suspiciously like “Taken.” But where Washington’s “The Equalizer” — the tale of a retired black-ops commando who reenters the killing game after a teenage friend is abused — was a well-received hit with a sequel in the works, Costner’s “3 Days to Kill” was something of a dud, despite a nearly identical plot.
So what’s the difference between one geriatric butt-kicking and another?
According to the exit-polling service CinemaScore, which recorded a B-minus grade for “The Grey,” the main reason cited by 67 percent of that movie’s audience for coming to the film was not its plot, but Neeson himself.
To a large degree, I’d argue that the secret to this star’s durable appeal over the past several years is less the former amateur boxer’s ability to throw a punch — even one that’s aimed, as in “The Grey,” at wolves — and more a deep reservoir of soulfulness. To be sure, Neeson’s physicality has always been “one of his greatest assets,” as critic John Anderson noted in his Wall Street Journal review of “The Grey.” (Let’s remember that Neeson’s career as an action hero dates at least as far back as 1990’s “Darkman.”) But I’d argue that what separates Neeson from the sexagenarian action-hero pack — a group that includes Sylvester Stallone, 68, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, 67 — is what Anderson calls “a spiritual ingredient that is both surprising and fiercely resonant.”
In other words, Bad Cop/Good Cop.
The violent Liam Neeson we see on screens these days isn’t so much the antithesis of Oskar Schindler, either artistically or morally, as it is the flip side of a single coin. This is so despite the fact that Schindler is known for the number of lives he saved, and Neeson’s more recent screen persona for the number of lives he has snuffed out. (In case you’re wondering how many that is, just Google “Liam Neeson kill map.”)
It’s a dichotomy that can be felt in one of the first scenes of “Taken,” when the precision with which Neeson’s character is shown wrapping his teenage daughter’s birthday present betrays both the obsessive-compulsiveness of a trained assassin and the pang of a divorced dad who misses his daughter.
To paraphrase the most famous speech given by Neeson’s character in “Taken,” what the actor has — and has on display, in varying degrees, in all of his tough-guy roles — is a very particular set of skills, skills he has acquired over a very long career.
They’re skills capable of making us feel not just the tough snap of breaking bones, but the throb of a broken heart.