Put a gun in his hand and the 62-year-old Irish actor is the equal of Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis — stars in whose shadows he labored for the initial decades of his long career. As stars from an older generation of action heroes such as Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone age out of leading roles or gracelessly battled against the ravages of time, Neeson has stepped in to take their place.
Even though he himself is an older actor, Neeson fits the current zeitgeist. In an era beset by financial fraud and terrorism, Neeson has emerged as a figure of authority who knows how to operate in a world without rules. He is a tortured, brooding avenger for a bleak and morally problematic time.
This weekend, he topped the charts yet again, as “Taken 3″ debuted to an impressive $40.4 million, showing that audiences have not tired of Neeson’s alter-ego Bryan Mills and his particular set of skills.
“Out of all the characters he’s done, this is the most enduring one,” said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox, the studio that distributed “Taken.” “It’s hard to explain a phenomenon like ‘Taken.’ There’s something about this character and the charisma he brings to it that just works.”
Neeson has been able to broaden his appeal beyond the “Taken” franchise. Previously, he was most often tapped to be a figure of gravitas orbiting a brighter star such as Christian Bale in “Batman Begins” or Orlando Bloom in “Kingdom of Heaven.” In recent years, however, he has emerged as a leading man in his own right, propelling the likes of “Non-Stop” and “Unknown” to $222.8 million and $130.7 million, respectively, on the strength of his name alone.
“It comes down to being reliable and giving audiences what they want,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “When someone has a surge and they become popular in a specific genre, you always think, ‘Well, when do they slow down?’ But it hasn’t. It’s been six years of him being an action star.”
In some ways, it is surprising that it took so long for Neeson to crack skulls onscreen. As a physical presence, he has few equals. The burly Irish actor clocks in at six feet, four inches and always seems in danger of spilling out of the frame. With the possible exception of “Rob Roy,” however, it seemed as though Hollywood preferred him to assume the role of world-weary mentor.
Not everything has worked since he stepped onto centerstage, of course. Last fall’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones” was D.O.A., for instance, earning a lackluster $53.2 million globally.
However, what’s impressive about Neeson’s run is that he’s associated himself with modestly budgeted films that have an eye firmly on profitability. “Non-Stop,” for instance, cost $50 million to make, “Unknown” carried a $30 million pricetag and “The Grey” had a $25 million budget and made $77.3 million globally. Even the latest “Taken” only set its financier EuropaCorp back $48 million.
It took him awhile to emerge as an action star, but time may be on Neeson’s side.
“While other, older actors are struggling against their younger images in terms of being an action star, Neeson didn’t become an action hero until he was almost 60,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “That sets him up perfectly to keep going.”
For now, he may move forward without “Taken.” Promotional materials for the film describe it as the final chapter.
With an opening like this one, however, the pressure should mount for Neeson’s Bryan Mills to be lured out of retirement one last time. Even if “Taken” is truly in the rearview mirror, Neeson will continue to be in demand as an AARP action hero who can still kick ass. Some things only get better with age.