Movies

Liam Neeson’s career is built on our revenge fantasies, and that made things very uncomfortable this week

In an interview published by The Independent earlier this week, Liam Neeson shared an anecdote about seeking revenge. Forty years ago, upon discovering someone close to him had been raped, he learned the race of the attacker and, in response, wandered the streets looking to murder a black person. It took him a week to come to his senses. “I understand that need for revenge, but it just leads to more revenge, to more killing and more killing,” he said.

While it seems likely that Neeson intended to explain how senseless the pursuit of vengeance can be, the emphasis for most was placed on his jarring revelation of racism, the otherwise indiscriminate targeting of, as the actor put it, any “black bastard.” In response, some pundits have suggested that his comments amount to career suicide; that Hollywood is unlikely to offer him a second act. However, others have questioned why so much outrage is being foisted upon someone for admitting to having a terrible thought four decades ago.


Neeson in Taken 2.

AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Magali Bragard

But no matter if we accept the context of his story or isolate its disturbingly prejudiced aspect, it’s difficult to imagine that Neeson’s box-office appeal will be diminished. Cinemascore reports suggest his films perform well with an older than average demographic. At 66, Neeson remains a sex symbol and icon for masculinity who has grown older alongside his audience, mostly on the back of the type of revenge fantasies — minus the overt racism — that he described happening four decades ago. If anything, this story only further cements the ominous association between our celebration of revenge fiction and its unsavoury underpinnings.

Despite his broad shoulders and a rugged handsomeness (accentuated by a broken nose from his days as an amateur boxer), Neeson is an unlikely action star. He had been acting for more than a decade before a performance in the mostly forgotten film The Good Mother (1988) drew critical recognition. “Mr. Neeson,” Janet Maslin wrote in the The New York Times, “gives a breakthrough performance here, making Leo extremely appealing, a charming, sexy and iconoclastic figure.”

Five years later, he received an Academy Award nomination for playing Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List and seemed destined for superstardom. Starring roles in films like Nell, Rob Roy and Michael Collins followed, but the type of stratospheric success that had been envisioned after his breakthroughnever materialized. Even as The Phantom Menace shattered box-office records, the film did not open up new opportunities for Neeson. He was certainly a recognizable fixture in Hollywood, but far from an A-List star.

In the 2000s, Neeson started to settle into supporting roles in films like Gangs of New York, Batman Begins and The Chronicles of Narnia. Aged out of the typical action star window, the actor seemed to have given up on his career as a leading man.

Then came Taken, the story of a father — with a very particular set of skills — who wreaks vengeance on his daughter’s kidnappers. Neeson was 56 when the movie had its North American release in 2009. Premiering January 30th, Taken was the second biggest opening for a Super Bowl weekend in history. By the time it’s theatrical run was finished, the movie’s modest $10-million budget was earned back an incredible 22 times over. The success surprised everyone, not least of all Neeson, who wanted to do Taken because he was looking for something a little more physical. He assumed it would go straight to video. In an interview for GQ, he said, “I really thought it would be kind of a little side road from my so-called career.”


Neeson in The Commuter.

File

It was more than just a formula, though; there’s something about Neeson that draws people out. Movies with bigger stars at the time, like Edge of Darkness (Mel Gibson), From Paris with Love (John Travolta) and Three Days to Kill (Kevin Costner) tried to capitalize on the success of Taken but were unable to replicate its results. Meanwhile, Neeson was able to recreate revenge fantasy box-office success time and time again: Unknown (2011), revenge against the people who stole his identity; The Grey (2012), revenge against God and circumstance; Taken 2 (2012), revenge against more kidnappers; Non-Stop (2014), revenge against corruption and terrorists; A Walk Among The Tombstones (2014), revenge against criminals; Taken 3 (2015), revenge against the murderers of his wife; Run All Night (2015), revenge against the man who threatens his son; and The Commuter (2018), revenge against big banks, the financial crisis and more corruption.

Unlike some of the other older action stars, like Tom Cruise who is still flying into buildings, Neeson’s character age is not hidden from the audience, it’s the point. He is a retiree, his kids are grown up and he’s very much a boomer. In The Commuter, he keeps screaming, “I’m 60 years old!” Neeson never tries to be cool in these movies. His large physique, rather than frightening or imposing, seems exhausted. At best, he’s a handsome dad in bad clothes.

This makes sense, as Neeson’s movies tackle the fears and anxieties of an older audience, often related to the growing generational gap between boomers and their children. Especially obvious in the Taken franchise, they also play on anxieties of the “other,” offering a mindless annihilation of anonymous brown bad guys. They are fundamentally conservative films that fulfill a need for revenge by characters who feel out of touch with the world they live in.

In the larger context of movies like Death Wish and Dirty Harry, Neeson’s films continue a legacy of revenge movies that often include inherent racism that stoke paranoia and appeal to subconscious fears in its audience. Scaling back for a moment to Neeson’s statements about revenge, much of the outrage seems to be centred on the fact that Neeson put into words what is often boiling under the surface. When that revenge is made real, its darker underpinnings of maintaining the status quo come to the forefront.

As Neeson and his team go into damage control mode, it puts into focus the kind of stories that made him an action star and, by extension, our insatiable hunger for them. In revealing this secret, Neeson was doing more than outing himself for racist thoughts, he was exposing a society that is attracted to playing out its fantasies of revenge at all costs — right until the moment it is said out loud, and the fantasy becomes reality.

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