Liam Neeson returns to form playing tough guys in gritty films

Halfway through last year's rough-and-tumble thriller Unknown, assassins come calling for a man who's suffering from amnesia (Liam Neeson). All of a sudden, he hammers down on his pursuer with a lead pipe, digs a thumb into an eye socket, and punches through targets like a heavyweight. He won't learn his identity for a while longer, but from that point forward, we suspect — and the actor's gathering physical confidence confirms — he's not the well-mannered scientist he claims to be.

Liam Neeson is what greater generations would have called "strapping." Looking past this six-foot-four Irishman with long arms, meaty hands, and a colossal head is impossible. It's not that the camera loves him exactly. It's more that the camera has no choice but to fix on him, angling and widening to accommodate his stature and anticipate his movement. You want to watch him lift things, swing lead pipes, fell lesser men. It's apt that he trained as a boxer, that his fantastically long, aquiline nose was shaped by a fist. Of course there's that voice — commanding, lyrical, hint of brogue — but first there's the body.

Neeson's imposing figure seemed to hold him back from being a true leading man until Steven Spielberg saw the humanity in the hulk and knighted him, at age 41, as Oskar Schindler. For those of us who first came to know Neeson from that shattering performance, which earned him an Oscar nomination and the indignity of losing to Tom Hanks, his ensuing career has been largely confounding. Outside of a few biopics tailor-made for his stature and Celtic authenticity (Rob Roy, Michael Collins) and iconographic supporting work — he has played a Jedi (Star Wars Episode I), a ninja (Batman Begins), God (The Chronicles of Narnia), and Zeus (Clash of the Titans) — Neeson has never lived up to what his Schindler led us to expect (see: The Haunting, Gun Shy). And lately, beginning with the surprise hit Taken (2009) and continuing through The Grey (opened last Friday), he has become a staple of B-movie barnstormers, calling to mind the slumming, late-career spirals of Richard Burton and Gregory Peck. Why is a Shakespearean actor, a product of the venerable Abbey Theatre in Dublin, breaking Bosnian terrorists' necks and wrestling with wolves for a living?

The truth is that he has finally arrived. What made him difficult to cast when he was younger and likely kept him from the top ranks of the A-list during his prime — the inarguable fact of his atypical body — is what's allowing him to stay busy as he nears 60. Although good-looking, he has never been a pretty face — he has a heavy's cranium, a character actor's face-engulfing grin, and those tiny smiling eyes. Diminished beauty won't define him the way it did Redford, the way it will Clooney. Just go online and watch the trailer for The Grey — see how that instantly recognizable body, angled forward in strength and vulnerability, delivering blows as convincingly as it receives them, holds the screen. While other A-listers in his age bracket lose the faces that made them famous and transition to supporting parts and peripheral patriarchs (payback is a bitch, Hanks), and as former musclemen go to sag (check out The Expendables), Neeson has become a bona fide action star without changing how he goes about his business. He leads with that magnificent body and then backs it up with the rest.

In the long view of a 30-year film career, alpha action men are the rule, not the exception, on Neeson's resumé. Although perhaps saddled with the cred of stage acting, Neeson is more likely to crack a skull or swing a sword than fight for independence or save a Jew. (That it hasn't felt that way is a testament to how well he complicates the part.) Even fully armored, Neeson moves like Neeson, and he performed bloody ironwork in John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) and Peter Yates's Krull (1983). He then kept fighting, with both steel and light sabers, in Star Wars I, Batman Begins, Gangs of New York, and especially Rob Roy, in which he channels colonized Scotland's anger into a blow that slices Tim Roth's Archibald Cunningham in two. Before Spielberg, his most notable role was as a comic-book vigilante (Darkman), and even as Michael Collins, his best non-Schindler's film work, his charisma stems from a fierce physicality. In The Grey, team player Neeson bides his time with an ensemble of character actors until he's finally left alone, without hope of discovery, in the Alaskan wilderness. Suddenly, the film turns from endurance test to riveting one-man show. He cowers and then stiffens, registers that he's fucked, but then comes alive in motion, head down and arms pumping. The films might not be worthy, but Neeson always moves the picture.

It's interesting to revisit Schindler's List in this context, to see what Spielberg makes of such rich physical material. And indeed, Neeson's performance is revelatory in its physical authority — it seems like he could harbor all 1,100 survivors in his suit jacket — and in the subtle softening of his face and cadence. Yet it competes with Spielberg's efforts to monumentalize a body built to move. Shot in profile, framed against infinite blackness, he's like a Rodin sculpture. You can't help but marvel at that amazing head. I wonder if this is the Neeson most of us still imagine, a static movie star carved in black-and-white, an actor subsequently miscast and rendered inert in prestige films such as Nell and Before and After. Perhaps it took him growing older — the thinning of his hair, the extra lurch in his stride — as well as the undeniable tragedy of his personal life (his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, died suddenly in 2009) to make us fully appreciate him. "I know how old I am and that I'm just a shoulder injury from losing roles like the one in Taken," he admitted to Esquire last year. All the more reason to enjoy the action while it lasts.

 
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