Liam Neeson: The undisputed king of winter movie season

Liam Neeson in The Grey
Liam Neeson in The Grey
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The winter movie season is often a time of treasure to trash. It begins with a progressively lavish banquet of prestigious awards hopefuls and holiday event films, then peters out as January approaches and the studios offload their castoffs and leftovers into theaters amid rock-bottom expectations (although there are exceptions). It takes a special kind of actor—someone with “a very particular set of skills,” perhaps—to be able to span the range of these movies successfully, and Liam Neeson has the goods.

After four decades of working steadily in the film industry, Neeson has earned a fair share of accolades and fans. He’s been nominated for prestigious awards, including an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and was even named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000. Yet there’s not a whole lot that connects his films, other than his presence in them. He doesn’t restrict himself to any one genre or one type of character. He’s done superhero films, biopics, romantic comedies, gritty indies, period drama, and, especially in the wake of Taken, a fair amount of action thrillers. With so many of them having come out in the period between December and February, we’re anointing him the king of the weirdest time of the year at the multiplex.

It’s a fitting title, not just because of the release dates of his films, but because there’s something about Liam Neeson that’s, for lack of a better term, winter coded. With his scolding Irish brogue, ruggedly handsome features, and sharp-eyed gaze he comes off as distant and remote, yet he can be accessible when he wants to be. His stern-dad energy comes with an edge, a warning not to cross him or face the consequences of a temper churning deep below the surface. That’s what made him so good in the Taken films, and all the retreads that came after it. It’s comforting to be under that protection when the force of his fury is directed outward towards the bad guys.

Beneath that gruff exterior, though, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s not above having a little fun at his own expense now and then. Take his surprise cameo in the final season of Derry Girls, for example, or the time he revisited his Love, Actually character for a Red Nose Day charity special. He’s also appeared in a handful of films that didn’t come out in winter, but still have a chilly theme, like K19: The Widowmaker and The Ice Road. He even narrated Everest, a documentary about—what else?—climbing Mount Everest. No matter the project, Neeson never brings anything less than his best. So, in celebration of his coronation, we’ve picked out a few of the milestone winter releases from his long and storied filmography.

Schindler’s List (December 12, 1993)

Steven Spielberg’s holocaust epic Schindler’s Listtransformed Neeson from a character actor into a leading man of star quality. He had already given excellent performances in films like The Mission, Suspect, and Under Suspicion, not to mention the Sam Raimi-directed cult favorite Darkman, but his prominent role as Oskar Schindler took him to the next level. With an old-fashioned polish that recalled matinee idols of the 1940s he fit right into the black-and-white, industrial backdrop of World War II Krakow. The December release was timed as a bid for Academy Awards gold, and it worked. Schindler’s List won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, but Neeson had to settle for runner up to Tom Hanks, who won Best Actor for Philadelphia. It was the closest Neeson has come to a statue, but we’re not writing him off just yet. The film’s success would sustain him through the next few decades of his career, and allow him the freedom to pick and choose the roles he wanted to take on.

Gangs Of New York (December 20, 2002)

By 2002, Neeson had been absorbed into the Star Wars universe after appearing in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, but he’d also been doing straight dramatic roles in films like Michael Collins, Les Misérables (a non-musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel), and opposite Meryl Streep in Before And After. In Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York his part is small, but not insignificant. As “Priest” Vallon, the father of Leonardo Di Caprio’s Amsterdam Vallon and one-time leader of the Dead Rabbits, he has a big impact on the story. The film isn’t exactly full of holiday cheer, but like Schindler’s List, its December release put it in a good position for Oscar consideration.

Love, Actually (November 14, 2003)

Now, if you want to see Neeson in a film overstuffed with genuine holiday cheer, there’s always Love, Actually. The U.S. release date in mid-November falls a little out of the range of winter, but come on. It comes back each year during the Christmas season (for better or worse, depending on the ongoing discourse), bringing us anotherdose of Neeson in peak hot dad mode. He’s played leads in romantic comedies before, but this one is a modern classic.

Taken and Taken 3 (January 30, 2009 and January 7, 2015)

You can divide Liam Neeson’s career into two acts: before Taken and after Taken. The 2009 film that redefined the action genre and spawned dozens of imitators, Taken took everyone by surprise, including Neeson himself, when it became a box-office hit in the dead of winter. “I really thought it would be kind of a little side road from my so-called career,” the actor told GQ magazine in 2014. The $25 million-budgeted film was released on Super Bowl weekend, a rarity for an action thriller marketed to the same audience, and would go on to earn $226.8 million during its theatrical run. It changed the game for Neeson, who became a viable action star almost overnight. He would go on to make more films in the same mold, including Non-Stop, Unknown, A Walk Among The Tombstones and, of course, two Taken sequels. The sequel was an early October release and did even better than the first (with almost double the budget), while Taken 3 came out back to January in 2015 and showed no sign of fatigue or diminishing box-office returns.

The Grey (December 11, 2011)

You have to wonder if at any point when filming The Grey Liam Neeson regretted doing Taken and kicking off his action-star phase altogether. Without Taken he might not have ended up shivering in the bitter cold while starring in Joe Carnahan’s icy man-vs.-wolves thriller. This is Neeson at his toughest, though, and his gravitas never wavers as his character leads the survivors of a plane crash through the Alaskan wilderness, expertly evading wolves and the weather. The only thing they can’t escape is the existential dread that comes with facing mortality. It’s the perfect January movie to watch when you’re feeling hungover after weeks of holiday movies and Christmas cheer.

A Monster Calls and Silence (December 23, 2016)

No, that’s not a mistake. In December of 2016, two films featuring Liam Neeson came out on the same day. Well, sort of. Neeson only appears briefly as himself in A Monster Calls, in a photograph showing the grandfather of the central character, a boy named Conor who is struggling with his mother’s fatal illness. Neeson also provided the voice and motion capture for the monster in the title, a creature in the form of a yew tree who visits Conor and tells him stories. The film shared a U.S. release date with a very different film, Scorsese’s Silence, in which he once again casts Neeson in a supporting role that carries some weight. Here, he plays an apostate priest living in 17th century Japan. Neither of the films were commercially successful, but Neeson is effective in both of them. The fluke of timing is also a point in favor of the argument that he’s become a fixture of the season.

Cold Pursuit (February 8, 2019)

If there was ever a movie that solidified Neeson’s status as a winter king it’s Cold Pursuit. Originally titled Hard Powder and based on a 2014 Norwegian film, it follows the same template as so many films in Neeson’s post-Taken “you messed with the wrong unassuming middle-aged guy” era. In this one he’s a snowplow driver who goes on a killing spree to avenge the death of his son at the hands of a drug cartel. It’s a snowy showcase for Neeson’s talents and the wry sense of humor of director Hans Petter Moland (who also directed the Norwegian original), which elevate the story from the kind of by-the-numbers action flicks we’ve seen so many times by this point, from Neeson and others.

Next up for Neeson

Neeson recently re-teamed with Robert Lorenz, who directed him in The Marksman (released on January 15, 2021, so another winter film) on The Land Of Saints And Sinners. The film, also starring Ciarán Hinds, Jack Gleeson, and Kerry Condon, stars Neeson as an ex-assassin trying to escape his past in a quaint Irish coastal town. Netflix picked up the rights to the film, but it doesn’t currently have a release date. Among his other projects in the works is another one that helps make our case, no matter when it ends up coming out. It’s called Cold Storage. And with that we hand over the crown to his frosty highness, King Neeson, first of his name. May his reign continue for many winters to come.