Does anybody else remember when Liam Neeson was kind of a wimp? It might seem strange, now that he spends every movie beating up everyone in sight (and inspiring a particularly wonderful Key & Peele sketch: "He straight jacked up them wolves!"), but when Neeson was younger—and presumably stronger and better at beating up people—he never played heavies at all. He was a loser, the wussy, the vaguely Euro sensitive-pony-tailed man.
In 1988's The Dead Pool, the final Dirty Harry movie, he was a weasel record producer who existed mostly to have an accent for Clint Eastwood to sneer at. (And for Guns 'N Roses to have a dopey cameo.) In 1990's Darkman, he was the nerdy scientist who transforms into the hero; the reason Darkman is so easy to cheer for is because he was such a weakling in the first place. (For crying out loud, his character's name is "Peyton Westlake.") My favorite Liam Neeson role from this period was Woody Allen's 1992 Husbands and Wives, in which he plays the most perfect, sensitive, emotionally available, sweet-hearted soul imaginable, leading of course to him being tossed around and screwed over by every other character in the film. There was a time when Liam Neeson was the weak guy Judy Davis left for Sydney Pollack.
Now? The guy's basically Jason Statham with hair, the type of actor who inspires Vulture to put together "The 17 Worst Ways to Be Killed By Liam Neeson" slideshows. This is a fairly recent development: He gave a solid, Liam Neeson-y performance in 2005's Batman Begins—essentially, the evil version of his role in the Star Wars prequels—took a couple of years off, and then rattled off a little B-movie called Taken, in which he played a former CIA operative whose daughter is kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers. (While she was following U2 around on tour, by the way, which is not something teenagers were doing even in 2009, but no matter.) Out of nowhere, he took his intense focus and unfailing precision and turned it outward for once, and it worked like gangbusters: Suddenly, Liam Neeson, in his early sixties, was a freaking ass-kicker.
After that, he killed Russians and wolves and people on airplanes and the occasional robot boat. He became that rare, desperately-sought-after creature: an international action star. Taken 2 brought in $375 million worldwide back in 2012, which is nearing Marvel money for a movie that's basically a sexagenarian punching people for 90 minutes. It has been a shocking career turn for Neeson, particularly considering it all happened almost immediately after his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, was tragically killed in a skiing accident in March 2009. How bewildered she would be to learn that her beloved husband, whom she met while starring in a Eugene O'Neill play on Broadway, had become such a badass. (Suffice it to say, Jason Statham isn't meeting any future spouses in Eugene O'Neill plays on Broadway.)
The question, then, was what Neeson would do with all this newfound success once he got tired of stabbing rabid wolves in the face. When would Neeson do with this power all of a sudden? After all, this is a terrific actor: soulful, intense, capable of playing complex, confused, deeply human characters. The guy anchored Schindler's List, for crying out loud; it's nice that he's having fun pretending to kick Russians, but when was he going to get back to acting? At first he tried comedy, which he has a natural affinity for, and it worked in The Lego Movie, but he was given nothing to do in this year's awful A Million Ways to Die in the West. He may have gotten it all out of his system in his riotous cameo on Ricky Gervais' Life's Too Short anyway.
He makes lists all the time, and that's exactly what Steven Spielberg was looking for.
Assuming that improv is not, in fact, in Neeson's future, you can get a sense of where he might go with this in his new film, A Walk Among the Tombstones, opening today. An adaptation of one Lawrence Block's beloved Matthew Scudder novels, Neeson plays a recovering alcoholic New York City private detective—briefly adopting a New Yawk accent before mercifully dispatching it—who doesn't so much take cases as he does wander into situations that make him darkly curious. Here, he hunts down two sexual deviants who kidnap and murder the spouses of drug dealers, for reasons too complicated and pointless to explain here, but he doesn't seem to do it for money as much as he does an exercise in trying to figure out what could possibly constitute some sort of justice. He is a lost, lonely, doomed man who happens to be a brilliant detective and, oh yeah, super-skilled at killing people, if it comes to that.
This all has enough of a connection to Neeson's recent Taken-type roles that it's not a major jolt, but it shows Neeson attempting to pull this new audience to a more interesting place. The movie doesn't entirely work—there's a wacky young black sidekick character who probably should have just been excised entirely—but it has the grim inevitability of an old '70s NYC crime drama, the type of minor-key movie they used to make all the time. Other than the accent, Neeson is perfect as this sad, quiet man who avenges not because he must, but because, well, someone probably should, and it might as well be, with a heavy sigh, him. It doesn't have the cathartic kick of Taken, but it's not as ludicrous, either. It points in yet another new direction: Maybe the old Neeson and this new one can meet somewhere in the middle. Just no ponytails this time.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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