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In ye-olden times (the pre-2000s for you undergrads), Liam Neeson was best known as a character actor. Likeably Irish, the actor’s gentle wit made him appealing to the over-35 female demographic and his grizzle was enough to draw male fans into theatres. He was riveting as Oskar Schindler, inspiring as Michael Collins, and tolerable in The Phantom Menace—a critical darling and affable everyman.
These days, Neeson is more likely to be starring in a Schindler’s List sequel, probably directed by Michael Bay, and probably titled Schindler’s Fist. What started as a sojourn into action fare, with roles in Batman Begins and Gangs of New York, has turned into an honest-to-god career re-invention, with eleven of his post-Taken films casting him as Admirals, hit-men, CIA agents, and Greek Gods (was anyone crying out to see Neeson as Zeus?).
His recent box office hits risk running his newly-founded persona into the ground. You’ve seen the trailers and joked about the resemblance to Taken. It would be easy—and sometimes, correct—to point out the overuse of action clichés, many so tired they’d make Harrison Ford look lively. Run All Night, Battleship, and Unknown were deemed throwaways, while Taken 2 and 3 were ludicrous drag-outs of an already played-out story. Looking at the Neeson oeuvre since his renaissance, it’s clear that his pedigree has set him above the schlocky nostalgia of his Expendables competition (Stallone and Willis) and their hyper-masculine young counterparts (Hemsworth and Lutz).
Still, how is this relevant to the rest of society? For all of the talk about marketing, target demos, and niche audiences, film-going in the modern era has become much less predictable. At a time when baby boomers are flocking to see comic book movies and the under-25 set are increasingly favouring independent fare, the appeal of Neeson’s dad-wish-fulfilment films remains curious. Maybe Neeson’s career appeals to us because it renews our belief that it’s never too late. Maybe we’re using our dollar to buck ageist convention. More likely is that Neeson’s success is an extension of the reality that, for ageing wealthy white male celebrities—and their ticket-buying counterparts—nothing is unattainable. Will Neeson’s dad-wish-fulfilment plot machine wear out its welcome? For now, the respectability he lends to action-thrillers seems to be weathering the genre’s diminishing returns.