Liam Neeson Will Keep Kicking Ass Until There’s None Left

He’s a great actor and an even better action hero.

There’s something inherently funny about making a sequel to Taken. If the abduction was an unfortunate coincidence the first time, it just seems careless the second go round. The third time? Well, that makes a Hollywood kind of sense. In California, the third time isn’t the charm – the third time is a franchise. And the man at the center of that franchise, Liam Neeson, has become a sort of hyper-violent Giving Tree – albeit one with a twig on the trigger.

Taken 3 brings to mind the joke Bruce Willis cracks in the middle of the second Die Hard: “How does the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” These guys already made the mistake of messing with the wrong guy — and they got their asses handed to them. Then, in Taken 2, they took the wife and got their asses kicked all over again. Given that the whole point of Taken was to shock an audience with its hero’s “specific set of skills,” there’s something kind of odd about returning to see the character challenged again and again. It’s a bit like watching a prize fighter go down in the first round, wake up in the hospital and try to get back in the ring. That’s bad planning.

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And, in the latest Neeson-a-thon, which pulled in $40 million on opening weekend, Mills runs, punches, chases and shoots his way to victory before emerging unscathed from what is essentially a pile of dead bad guys. And you can’t feel bad for the casualties: How could they not see it coming?

Part of the reason the first


worked so well is that it was genuinely surprising to see a new side of Liam


. In the innocent days of 2008, we didn’t know he could kick ass like that any more than the bad guys did. He’d been in vaguely action-oriented movies before, of course, and was not a complete stranger to typical movie heroism. One of his earliest roles was in the fantasy epic


, and he starred as a genuine superhero in Sam


hugely underrated


in the early


. But, for the most part, Liam


existed in the popular imagination as a kind of benevolent father figure. His defining role was, in a sense still is, the real-world hero Oskar Schindler in

Steven Spielberg’s

Schindler’s List

. And those are the kinds of roles he continued to take thereafter: He followed




, in which he played a small town doctor who attempts to socialize a woman who has lived her entire life in isolation, and from there went on to star in a pair of critically acclaimed historical dramas,

Rob Roy


Michael Collins

. He was in

Love Actually


His weird and potentially career-derailing detour into the awful

Star Wars


notwithstanding, Liam Neeson seemed poised to settle into middle-age as a reliable dramatic lead, heading up prestige pictures built around his performances. Hence


, from 2004, an otherwise totally forgettable biopic for which Neeson won huge acclaim — exactly the sort of movie most guessed he would making in perpetuity. Then


happened and Neeson was Oskar Schindler no more. It was a odd shift, trading the mantle of true heroism for a lot of fairly rote gunplay, but it was a perfect fit.


was a success largely because Neeson sold the action role so well: he brought the chops he’d displayed in Oscar-winning dramas to a fairly mindless Euro-trash action picture and took it kind of seriously. And it wasn’t a fluke. It was only a few years later that Neeson returned to the same well with Jaume Collet-Serra’s terrific


, and a year after that when he literally fought wolves in

Joe Carnahan’s surprise hit

The Grey

. Before long, the Liam Neeson action movie became a yearly tradition: Every January or February, Neeson pops up to kick ass.

He’s still a paternal figure, but he’s become the dad that tells the bullies how it is and sends them scurrying back home, sometimes metaphorical tails between their legs.

The crowning achievement to date might be


, also by




. That Alfred Hitchcock-style thriller starred


as an alcoholic air


struggling to retain control of a passenger plane carrying one or more terrorists, a silly premise that somehow worked like gangbusters. At its core, the movie was about


doing what


does best: kicking ass while looking like a real human being.


is a serious actor, and in his action roles he seems to carry the weight of the world in his face. He looks world-weary and vaguely sad, his head hanging low, his eyes sunken in. How many action stars can you name who in a single line of


can express existential pain while also convincingly communicating their ability to cause pain should someone cross them?

It’s no longer a surprise to see Neeson taking care of business – he’s about to Run All Night with Ed Harris – because he’s our most bankable action star. He’ll win that race, but the bad guys will keep coming. They underestimate Liam at their own risk.

Photos by Twentieth Century Fox / Everett Collection