Liam Neeson’s Best Action Scene Came Years Before ‘Taken’
Liam Neeson’s career can be divided into two distinct eras: Before ‘Taken’ (BT) and After ‘Taken.’ When that Luc Besson thriller became a surprise smash in 2008—earning more than $225 million worldwide against a $25 million budget—it launched a whole ‘Taken’ franchise (the third film, ‘Taken 3: Taken It to the Streets,’ opens today) and turned Neeson into one of Hollywood’s most improbable action heroes at the age of 55.
But even BT-era Neeson’s filmography was littered with examples of roles where he used his “particular set of skills” decades before that ‘Taken’ speech made them famous. Before he was Oscar-nominated for ‘Schindler’s List,’ he was Darkman; the deranged and brutally scarred protagonist of Sam Raimi’s dark superhero story. Neeson’s career as a badass is nearly as long and distinguished as his career as a serious actor—even if a lot of the action movies he made of the ’80s and ’90s have mostly been forgotten and a lot of people today assume his career as a butt-kicker began with ‘Taken’ (or maybe ‘The Phantom Menace’).
I enjoy The Continuing Cinematic Adventures of Liam Neeson, America’s Grumpiest, Face-Punchingest Grandpa; I gave a positive review to Neeson’s ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ and if I’d reviewed ‘Non-Stop,’ his other 2014 movie, I’d have given that one a thumbs-up too (mostly because I have a sore spot for hilariously absurd thrillers). But most of these films, including ‘Non-Stop’ (which includes a brief zero-gravity shootout) are totally preposterous, particularly when you consider that it’s Liam freaking Neeson, a guy who’s a year older than my father, laying waste to hundreds of bad guys without breaking a sweat. (No offense, Dad.)
In other words, AT-era Neeson is all about escapism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but there’s something to be said for action that’s a bit more grounded and a bit more plausible, because that’s the sort of action that goes beyond entertaining spectacle into the realm of genuine drama. And, in fact, BT-era Neeson participated in one of the most dramatic action sequences of all time more than a dozen years before ‘Taken.’ It’s the climactic sword fight from the 1995 swashbuckler ‘Rob Roy,’ directed by Michael Caton-Jones.
In it, Neeson’s Rob Roy MacGregor finally gets his hands on Tim Roth’s Archibald Cunningham, the man who has made his life a living hell for the previous 100-odd minutes. Their feud comes down to a mano a mano duel between the larger, stronger MacGregor (wielding a heavy broadsword) and the smaller, quicker, and more skilled Cunningham (with his lighter rapier). If MacGregor wins, the debt that’s been hanging over his head for the entire film (because of Cunningham) will be forgiven. If he loses, well, he dies. This is what happens next (keeping in mind this is basically the end of the movie, which you are about to SPOIL by watching):
Certainly, Neeson’s starred in more technically complex fight scenes; the average beat-’em-up sequence from ‘Unknown’ or ‘The A-Team’ features much more intricate choreography and editing. But that’s the problem; AT-era Neeson is a 60-year-old dude who never even seems to break a sweat as he barrels through thugs. He’s a video game character made flesh.
Ironically, it’s ‘Rob Roy,’ all those years earlier, when Neeson was still young, where he showed the most humanity and weakness in an action film. Instead of impossibly lengthy exchanges, the ‘Rob Roy’ duel takes place in strategic bursts followed by lengthy pauses for rest punctuated by the sound of Neeson gasping for air. By the end of the battle, Neeson is so exhausted he can barely lift his weapon. When was the last time Neeson even breathed heavy in an action movie? It’s been a while. In ‘Taken 3,’ he makes a comment about not having eaten anything in a day, then outruns and outsmarts a bunch of cops.
I’m not going to tell Neeson what to do with his career (and like I said, I do enjoy Grandpa Facepuncher, ‘Taken 3’ notwithstanding). But if I were him, I’d be looking to ‘Rob Roy’ as a model to replicate in the future. That’s the sort of role where he could merge the actor and the ass-kicker into one amazing whole. AT-era Neeson’s work is often called “mindless fun,” and in its best moments, it is. But BT-era Neeson made action movies that were the exact opposite of mindless fun, where the physical fight was part of an battle of wills that was equally as exciting and way more interesting.