The Last Action Hero entertains us, even in the middle of a pandemic
It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what you want. If you’re looking for Academy Awards gold, I can tell you the Academy has nominated none of the following movies for any Oscars. But what Liam Neeson does have is a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired after a long and storied career. Skills that make him a dream come true for action film fans. And even during a pandemic, Neeson has added not one, but two action programmers to his resume. His movies will find you. And they will make money.
Neeson, at one point most famous for playing a Jedi or a reformed Nazi, has cultivated quite a third act as an action star. He’d dabbled with genre film before, in Star Wars and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and the swords-and-sandals epic Kingdom of Heaven. In 2008, at 56, Neeson starred in Taken, making him an action star overnight. He played a former CIA agent who infiltrates the sex-trafficking ring that kidnapped his teenage daughter. The role gave Neeson, operating in perpetual grizzled veteran mode, a badass monologue to recite (which I butchered above) and lots of bad guys to kill.
Audiences were so taken with Taken that it made nearly $227 million worldwide and spawned two sequels and an NBC TV show. Neeson would go on to make 13 more action films off of the strength of that one movie alone, with at least two more in development.
The Marksman, released Jan. 15, is but the latest in Neeson’s late-career resurgence of films where the actor plays a grizzled action hero. Neeson plays a rancher near the Arizona border who ends up defending a young Mexican boy who is fleeing a cartel. The film dethroned Wonder Woman 1984 as the top film at the box office upon its release, taking in $3.1 million in one weekend. Its box office numbers dropped off by the second week, but it was still the No. 1 movie in America.
Last year, Neeson starred in the action thriller Honest Thief, where his “In-and-Out Bandit” tries to go straight before being double-crossed by the FBI agents who took his confession. It made nearly $14.2 million domestically following its theatrical release on Oct. 16, 2020.
In 2019’s Top 100 domestic grossing movies, there were few action films that weren’t a part of already existing franchises. Neeson’s revenge flick Cold Pursuit was one of them. In 2020, Honest Thief cracked the Top 50.
What makes these movies so much of an audience draw? It’s definitely not because they’re reinventing the wheel. I have seen most of Neeson’s post-2008 action output and, gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you the names of any of his characters. But that’s because Neeson isn’t playing a character. He’s playing Liam Neeson, Action Star. And if Neeson is in an action movie, you pretty much know what you’re going to get.
There’s Liam Neeson Suspects His Wife of Adultery (The Other Man); Liam Neeson In A Military TV Show Made Into a Movie (The A-Team); Liam Neeson the Prison Escape Supporting Actor (The Next Three Days); Liam Neeson Vs. Wolves (The Grey); Liam Neeson Who Had His Identity Stolen (Unknown); Liam Neeson’s Family Gets Kidnapped Again (Taken 2); Liam Neeson On a Plane (Non-Stop); Liam Neeson Pokes Fun At His Action Persona (The Lego Movie); Liam Neeson Investigates a Murder (A Walk Among the Tombstones); Liam Neeson Is Accused of Murder (Taken 3); Liam Neeson Does Road To Perdition (Run All Night); Liam Neeson On a Train (The Commuter) and Liam Neeson In the Snow (Cold Pursuit, which, as our review pointed out, really should have been titled Nels Coxman).
These films are relentlessly predictable, but that’s what makes them comfortable. Mindlessly watching him beat up some bad guys is one of the film medium’s most reliable commodities. Still to come in the future are Liam Neeson Saves Miners (The Ice Road, scheduled for 2021) and Liam Neeson The Reformed Assassin (Memory).
Aside from superhero franchises and a handful of other actors who have leaned more into the action genre as of late—Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves—there’s nobody else who consistently sells theatrical movies solely based on their persona.
How do you know if you’re watching a Liam Neeson, Action Star movie? Most of them have January release dates. Most are made on small budgets. Most have European directors—see the entire Taken franchise, The Other Man, Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, The Commuter and Cold Pursuit.
And most involve Neeson’s character either being a former member of law enforcement/the military (the Taken franchise, A Walk Among the Tombstones, The Commuter and The Marksman) or mourning the death of a family member (The Grey, Run All Night and Cold Pursuit); or both (Non-Stop).
There is also a deep sadness to many of Neeson’s characters that separates him from other action stars. There are no bon mots as he dispatches henchmen. No glee taken in the destruction of life. His characters in these movies often jump into action as a way to atone for past mistakes or to avenge the death of a family member. Ottway, Neesons’ character in The Grey, is so shaken by the death of his wife and the deaths of his arctic traveling party that he curses at God in the film’s final act:
“Do something. Do something, you phony, prick, fraudulent motherfucker. Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real. I need it now, not later. Now! Show me and I’ll believe in you until the day I die. I’m calling on you!”
After a long period of silence, he says, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”
In Run All Night, his mob hitman Mike McCauley must atone for killing the son of his boss, which sets up this scene that owes a huge debt to the restaurant scene in Heat, but still manages to make thematic usage of the camera. The camera spins circles around Neeson and Ed Harris as they talk around the real issue plaguing their characters: a life must be repaid with a life.
But those saddened dramatic stakes are but a stop on the path to the inevitable; good will always triumph over evil in a Liam Neeson Action Movie, no matter how many of Neeson’s family members are taken. And that’s the kind of comfort and predictability audiences will return to time and time again, no matter the setting.