Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Taken With Liam Neeson: The Last Action Hero

On 60 Minutes Sunday night, Liam Neeson opened up about the death of his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, five years after the fact. If you do not recall the circumstances, she sustained a traumatic brain injury after falling on a ski slope at Mont Tremblant. Among other things, Neeson said, “[Her death] was never real. It still kind of isn’t. There’re periods now in our New York residence when I hear the door opening, especially the first couple of years … anytime I hear that door opening, I still think I’m going to hear her.”

Shot in tight close-up, the interview stands against the action star persona Neeson has fashioned for himself since 2008, when he sprinted down Parisian alleys, growled about his “very particular set of skills” and made Taken into an unlikely hit. Universal Pictures presumably planted Neeson in the 60 Minutes hot seat to plug Non-Stop, which looks to be a very typical Neeson-kicking-ass vehicle set aboard a hijacked airplane, opening Friday. What they got instead was an emotional confessional about the pain of loss and this rather candid aside about his unusual typecast: “I’m 61 years of age, man, you know? Going around, fighting these guys, yeah, I feel a wee bit embarrassed, you know?” He said something similar to Dublin station 98FM around the time of Taken 2’s release, downplaying the probability of a third installment because his character’s daughter “can’t get taken again … that’s just bad parenting.”

There will, of course, be a Taken 3, because you don’t just say no to a $20 million paycheck, but I would like to hone in on those words “bad parenting.” Tragedy foregrounds the important things, in this case being a parent, both on- and off-screen. As CIA agent Bryan Mills in Taken, Neeson turns into a kind of Super-Dad, singlehandedly bucking the human trafficking trade in order to prevent his daughter from becoming another crime statistic. In the 2010 A-Team reboot, Neeson chomps a cigar for almost two hours as Hannibal Smith, the papa of a quartet of mercenaries who “loves it when a plan comes together.” These days, Neeson not only often plays the oldest member of an ensemble but its most assured, intelligent and dexterous one, too. It must feel great — even consoling, on a deeper level.

The Neeson brand of middle-aged wish fulfillment appeals to male Baby Boomers who have children of their own and next to no chances to clock a two-dimensional bad guy in the face. More telling is the zeal with which millennials — at least, based on the sample pool I know — have latched onto Neeson. If I could venture a guess as to why I so wanted to see Taken when it came out, I would say irony had something to do with it: Old Oskar Schindler, shooting fools, jumping through windows? Sounds awful. Let’s see it! As age and experience teach us, though, one invokes irony to mask feeling, especially feelings we may find embarrassing to share. With the exception of Battleship and Wrath of the Titans, I have seen every Liam Neeson action movie since Taken. So, why?

I see in Liam Neeson a father figure, one even greater than the individual characters he portrays. I approach each new movie of his expecting pretty much the same guy, in that I do not waste much energy scrutinizing, say, what his motives are this time around. In exchange for this dumbing down of character and abandonment of realism, I admire Neeson’s ever-growing  mythology. Old-school Hollywood used to sell movies this way, with a star’s name guaranteeing a certain personality in the character he or she played. There is a comfort in getting what you expect, and yet there is something more when the expected dispenses evil in such a thorough, pleasurable way that his actions provide comfort on their own. While Neeson’s movies sell flattened, superficial lies on how to deal with the problems in the world today, his hero’s familial focus — always after those who wronged his family, or after some lost feeling of love — channels his violent tactics to a higher, more compassionate purpose.

This current image of Liam Neeson also leans on his earlier, more spectacular work. Schindler’s List tackles too real and devastating a monstrosity to contribute much to Neeson’s persona these days. Instead, I think to the Christ-like mentors he played in Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace and The Chronicles of Narnia. We hardly saw a peek into the inner lives of Qui-Gon Jinn or Aslan, which in turn only reinforced their mythic proportions. In the 2008 video game Fallout 3, Neeson voiced the soft-spoken, genius scientist James, known simply as “Dad” for most of the game, for he is the father of the character you play. You are tasked with finding your dad for most of the story, so that sprawling open-world game ultimately boils down to an odyssey of child reuniting with his or her father. Fallout 3 heralds Neeson’s Taken turn with a saintly and sterile manifestation of the paternal savior he would soon define.

Only in The Grey, an underrated 2012 thriller, does Neeson bridge the resourceful man of action with the tortured soul he surely was following his wife’s death. Stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, his character, Ottway, writes letters to his ailing wife, and you can sense that Neeson is mining a core painfully, tragically accessible to him. This is the greatest Liam Neeson performance in years, where he refuses to reiterate his valid, if one-note, Super-Dad and chooses, instead, to find meaning in his real-life suffering. In The Grey, Neeson embodies the quintessential cinematic father figure of our time: you trust him with your safety, but more than anything else, you feel like he could use a good hug.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

No comments: