Prior to 2008, Liam Neeson was an Oscar-nominated actor best known for his ability to shine in period pieces and his unfortunate mullet in The Phantom Menace.
But thanks to a visionary studio chief or prescient casting head who slotted him in the B-movie action smash Taken, Neeson completely reinvented himself as the new millennium’s chief a**-kicker -- a modern-day John Wayne (or if you’re feeling less charitable, Charles Bronson) intent on avenging every slight ever done against him or his family.
Neeson’s path to vengeance continues in his latest action extravaganza, The Commuter, which, according to the Irish actor, is his final bow in the world of guns and fisticuffs. He told ET in 2015 that he only had “maybe two more years” left as an action star, and doubled down on the comment at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, saying, “Audiences are going to eventually go, ‘Come on.’”
But Key & Peele’s valets and other Neeson fans shouldn’t fret. Later in 2018, the actor will star in Hard Powder, which boasts this no-we-did-not-make-this-up premise: “a snowplow driver seeks revenge against the drug dealers he thinks killed his son.” (Consider our tickets purchased.)
In honor of Neeson’s “particular set of skills,” ET is ranking his late-period action movies to find out which ones are worth hunting down and which you can let slip away.
9. Taken 3 (2014)
Liam Neeson vs: The crooks who framed him for the murder of his ex-wife
Worldwide box office: $325 million
Badass quote: “And then I’ll come for you. I’ll find you. And we both know what’s gonna happen.”
Look, there’s only so many times a man’s things can get taken before we as viewers veer into disbelief, and in this wholly unnecessary (yet very profitable) sequel, Bryan Mills feels like the unluckiest man alive as his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) is kidnapped and killed as part of a complicated frame job. Unless you have a thing for Forest Whitaker, or wonder how many cuts you need to show someone jumping a fence, you should probably skip the finale to this trilogy.
8. Run All Night (2015)
Liam Neeson vs: The mafia goons out to kill his son
Worldwide box office: $71 million
Badass quote: “The things I did, the things I’ve seen, it becomes who you are. You can’t just go home and scrub it off.”
There’s no denying that everyone wants a piece of the action when it comes to Neeson movies, as even the ones that are sub-standard have awesome casts. This fairly generic story of an alcoholic hit man trying to save his son from the mob features Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Common, Holt McCallany and Nick Nolte, among others, so the fault lies not in the acting, but the been-there, done-that story that we’ve seen far too often.
7. A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
Liam Neeson vs: Drug dealers who torture and kill women
Worldwide box office: $63 million
Badass quote: “How much is it gonna bother you if I take that knife away and stick it in your neck?”
Based on the novel by Lawrence Block, this one sat around in development hell for years -- it was originally set to be made in 2002 with Harrison Ford starring -- and you can kind of see why. Tombstones, cool name aside, is the kind of gritty, downcast flick they don’t really make anymore -- a tweener that falls between action and drama. Neeson is appropriately somber, but some elements, including a street-talking kid, don’t really click.
6. Taken 2 (2012)
Liam Neeson vs: The family of the bad guy he killed in the first movie
Worldwide box office: $376 million
Badass quote: “I’ll be fine. It’s the guys following us who are about to have a problem.”
There was no doubt that after the success of the first film that there would be a sequel; the biggest problem with this film is that it plays more like a remake. If you liked Neeson taking out scores of Eurotrash dudes, this one will be right up your alley. Yes, there’s the slight twist of Mills getting nabbed by the bad guys, but that doesn’t last long, and before you know it, Neeson is up to his old tricks, this time with the help of daughter Kim (Maggie Grace).
5. Unknown (2011)
Liam Neeson vs: Amnesia
Worldwide box office: $136 million
Badass quote: “I didn’t forget everything. I remember how to kill you, a**hole.”
In this twisty, Hitchcock-lite thriller, Neeson plays a doctor who gets in a car crash in Berlin and wakes up with amnesia. His wife (January Jones at her iciest) doesn’t acknowledge him and another man has taken his identity. He has to work with a cab driver (Diane Kruger) to clear his name, only to discover there’s something deeper at play. This one is stylish and slick, and if you don’t look too closely, it all clicks into place nicely at the end.
4. The Commuter (2018)
Liam Neeson vs: Strangers on a train
Worldwide box office: TBD
Badass quote: “On behalf of the American middle class, f**k you.”
Neeson’s fourth pairing with director Jaume Collet-Serra follows the formula of Non-Stop: stick the actor in a confined space with time constraints and let him go to work. This time, Neeson’s ex-cop/fired insurance agent gets a weird offer from a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) to find a random passenger on the train he takes home every day. The mystery works well and Neeson’s mix of everyman and super cop proves that he’s still got it, even at 65 years old.
3. Non-Stop (2014)
Liam Neeson vs: Strangers on a plane
Worldwide box office: $223 million
Badass quote: “I’m not hijacking this plane. I’m trying to save it.”
A clever mix of 9/11 paranoia, disaster flick and modern technology, Non-Stop is the rare whodunit not easily solved by looking at the credits. Again, Collet-Serra makes the best of the limited confines, as Neeson’s alcoholic air marshal must figure out who the terrorist is before more passengers are killed, leading to lots of close-quarters action. High-concept thrillers are a dime a dozen, but it’s nice to see one that effectively delivers on its premise.
2. Taken (2008)
Liam Neeson vs: The punks who took his daughter
Worldwide box office: $227 million
Badass quote: “If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.”
The movie that started it all feels somewhat quaint 10 years later, but it was an absolute revelation upon its release, and it still holds up today -- a 90-minute shot of pure adrenaline from action master Luc Besson. Watching Neeson’s retired CIA agent go on a rampage as he tries to rescue his kidnapped daughter put the actor in a brand-new light, as audiences got a new appreciation of his size and physicality. It’s still a little weird that then 24-year-old Maggie Grace was playing a helpless teenager, but you’re willing to overlook that when you see Neeson tell the kidnappers about his special set of skills.
1. The Grey (2012)
Liam Neeson vs: Wolves
Worldwide box office: $77 million
Badass quote: “Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.”
Yes, the trailer was sold as Neeson battling against wolves, but it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, as the film turns out to be a philosophical musing on the nature of man vs. wild with a loaded cast and solid direction from Joe Carnahan. Neeson stars a depressed oil company employee who, along with a handful of other workers, survives a harrowing plane crash only to discover they are being stalked by grey wolves. Instead of turning into a full-bore action flick, The Grey swerves into a more cerebral approach, with the characters discussing life and their fate in the woods. Sure, you still get to see Neeson punch a wolf in the face, but this film is much deeper than that, and will stick with you long after you watch it.