How Taken Changed the Trajectory of Liam Neeson's Career

Liam Neeson never planned on becoming Hollywood’s most reliable Dad Movie action star. Throughout the first three decades of his illustrious stage and screen career, he made his name in historical dramas, earning an Oscar nomination for Schindler’s List and awards consideration for his roles in Michael Collins, Les Miserables, and Kinsey. The closest he got to fight scene choreography came as a Jedi master in The Phantom Menace and then as the bad guy in Batman Begins. He was never one to sweat too much.

But everything changed in 2008 when Neeson starred in Taken, director Pierre Morel’s taut, one-note thriller about a single father who flies to Paris to rescue his teenage daughter from sex traffickers. As Bryan Mills, a former government operative and recently divorced bachelor, Neeson complemented his signature gravitas and vulnerability with an unexpected brutality, killing and torturing a cadre of Albanian mobsters and pimps with alarming—if not excessive—violence and resourcefulness., “I read [the script] and just thought, 'This would be great; just hang out with stuntmen every day and beat guys up,'” he has said of the film, before clarifying: “I did think it would be straight-to-video.” Instead, of course, Taken became a hit to the tune of $226 million worldwide. And fifteen years later, Neeson still can’t shake the film’s influence.

The phenomenon was too loud for Hollywood to ignore—Neeson would follow it up with two underwhelming, no-less lucrative sequels and soon began headlining a host of other mid-budget (and mostly poorly-reviewed) action thrillers, banking on his ability to elevate genre schlock and the residual effects of the “dadsploitation” genre he’d unwittingly ignited. Over the last decade and change, he’s pumped out The Grey, Non-Stop, Run All Night, The Commuter, and Cold Pursuit, all Taken iterations that revolve around a survivalist, duty-bound heroism, laced with paternal regret and marital discord while fastened to various modes of transportation. Despite hinting at a potential retirement from action and diversifying his resume with small roles in various projects (Silence, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Widows), the 71-year-old actor has kept defying his age and continued bolstering his B-movie bona fides, one plane, train, and snowplow ride at a time.

Case in point: After two similar-minded thrillers last year (have you heard of Blacklight or Memory?), Neeson has returned with Retribution, which once again finds him in similar territory as a not-so-great dad, trapped in a car with a bomb set to detonate if anyone exits this vehicle (yes, his kids are in the backseat.) Directed by Nimrod Antal, it follows Matt Turner, a sleazy financier at a hedge fund, who neglects his wife and complains about taking his kids to school. When he gets into the car with them, he receives a call from an anonymous voice explaining that a bomb has been strapped under his seat. If Matt doesn’t follow the voice’s instructions, or if anyone attempts to exit the vehicle, the bomb will detonate. The intriguing premise inevitably loses momentum and devolves into predictability, mimicking the diminishing arc of Neeson’s late-stage career.

Neeson was already attached to Taken before writer Luc Besson gave Morel the script and offered him the chance to direct it. The duo had worked together on numerous projects, but the father-daughter concept coupled with Neeson’s participation made the French director giddy. “From the get-go, I think he had what was necessary because we didn't want him to be just a pure testosterone action hero,” Morel says in an interview with GQ. “We wanted him to be a father first—with fragility, flaws, more humanity than strength. He was the perfect actor to do that.”

Still, in their first conversation together, Morel needed to know if Neeson would embrace the movie’s physicality and handle the majority of the gunplay and mixed martial arts that Bryan eventually lays down. “He was like, ‘I'll do everything I can myself,’” Morel says. Outside of several sequences that required precarious stunt work, Neeson stuck to his word, performing his own fight choreography and subverting audience expectations in the process. “It could have been Sylvester [Stallone], but then you'd see it coming. There's an element of surprise to that,” Morel says. “It proved that a guy in his 50s could do that.”

Though Neeson’s middle-aged machismo helped secure his action-hero credentials, it was his first-act speech that pushed the movie into the pop-cultural stratosphere. In the midst of hearing his daughter get taken over the phone, Bryan addresses her faceless abductors with an impromptu threat, methodically explaining that over his long career, he has acquired “a very particular set of skills,” which make him a nightmare for the people he pursues. Then he snarls a promise that sets the movie into high gear: “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you."

The speech became the most memorable part of the movie, but Morel initially thought it might be too cheesy. “When we read the script together, it was like, ‘Wow, that's tough to shoot. You sure we want to keep that line?’” Ultimately, it came down to tone, pivoting Neeson’s warmth and searching eyes into a death stare. “If you have that line delivered by an actor who is a known action hero, then it becomes a movie trailer punchline," Morel says. "Delivered by Liam, it becomes something else.” After defining the character and the emotion of the moment, Morel remembers Neeson nailing the speech in one take. “Right away, emotionally, it caught me almost by surprise,” he says. “I didn't expect to be so shocked.”

The result was a new entry into the Hollywood famous movie lines pantheon. Combined with Neeson’s proven fighting chops, the speech’s ubiquity inadvertently made Neeson an approachable avatar for family-saving and ass-kicking, a template that quickly inspired more generic avengers and protectors capable of going to dark places if given the push. “Hollywood is that machine,” Morel says. “Once you become that brand, it's hard to go back to something else. That's what people expect from you.”

In some ways, Neeson’s fall down the dadsploiitation rabbit hole feels like an ongoing cathartic practice, a way to come to terms with his own personal tragic past. More often than not, his characters need to reconcile past traumas, fear they’ve grown too far apart from their loved ones, and must right the wrongs of the world as penance. In these scenarios, feeling estranged and irrelevant might as well be a vocation. It’s probably why Neeson has pulled off so many of them. Nobody does remorse at 100 miles per hour better than him.

At some point, he’s got to slow down. Retribution might be the start. Neeson’s only requirement in this movie is to stay in his seat and drive, a nice change-up from his labor intensive resume. “When I have to reach for the walker to go and beat up two guys, I'll know: ‘No, Liam, the audience is really going to laugh this time,’” he told EW. But with three more thrillers already lined up, Neeson is keeping his foot on the gas.

Originally Appeared on GQ