Between Taken (plus Taken 2 and 3) and films such as Unknown or Non-Stop, it might be easy to forget that Liam Neeson has actually had a vast and varied career thus far.
Sure, he’s made his mark most dramatically in recent years as Bryan Mills, the growly retired CIA agent who is seemingly able to do everything, but it seems that, at large, we’ve forgotten that he’s capable of doing much more than snarling down a retro mobile phone.
We’ve seen his humorous side in Love, Actually and A Million Ways to Die in the West, and he’s also led excellent ensemble pieces such as the Revenant-before-the-Revenant survival tale, The Grey. To many kids the world over he’s the benevolent voice of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, and to those who are secretly kids deep down, he has a place in our collective heart as Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. He’s tried his hand at everything at some point or another, so it seems almost shameful to have Nicolas Cage-d him, to associate him only with a string of action movies that seem to follow a very nearly identical sequence of events.
But fear not, because the Neeson Renaissance may soon be nigh; 2017 brings us, along with the desperate hope for a better year in general, two brilliant looking films starring the big man himself. The first, A Monster Calls, is an emotional-sucker punch that’s already garnered a lot of buzz from the awards circuits, including a Best Voice Performance gong for Neeson at the Washington DC Film Critics Association Awards. He’s the voice of the titular Monster, who comes to the aid of 12-year-old Conor as he attempts to deal with the terminal illness of his mother. The film’s release was pushed back, likely so as to throw its metaphorical hat into the 2017 Oscar ring, and the reviews are already setting it up as a must-see, ‘heart-searing drama’.
If January wasn’t being kind enough, it’s delivering us – a mere week after A Monster Calls! – Martin Scorsese’s latest epic, Silence. Based on the 1966 novel by Shasaku Endo, Silence follows two Christian missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) as they travel to Japan at a time when Christianity was outlawed, in search of their missing mentor – Neeson. It’s a remarkably exciting film for any fan of Neeson; he’s surrounded by an impossibly talented cast in a dark, punishing tale that marks somewhat of a thematic departure for Scorsese. In a film that’s being referred to as ‘art’, and a ‘nuanced, respectful interrogation of moral [and] religious questions’, we might see for Neeson an opportunity for him to depart from the action flicks towards something that’s a mastery of structure and story.
None of this is meant to condemn Neeson’s work in the action genre, though – Taken is categorically one of the best action pieces of the last fifteen or so years, and he’d never have got the wealth of work in the ass-kicking business that he has were he not so good at it. But versatility is the best tool an actor can have, and what Neeson’s lacked in recent years is something to switch him filmography up, lest he fall into a niche.
That’s what these two pieces look set to do. With one an emotionally insightful coming-of-age drama and the other a brutal theological-historical piece, Liam Neeson is once again re-carving himself a space as a multi-faceted and exciting actor; he’s a man with a particular set of skills, but he’s no longer limiting himself to a particular set of films.
Words by Jess Ennis