There’s nothing pretty about Liam Neeson.
The Irish actor sports a disheveled nose and an accent that sounds like it belongs in a pub where the bar stools date back to the Second World War. And when Neeson puts up his dukes on screen, there’s no “Matrix”-style effects to give him cover. It’s all loping jabs and hay makers.
It’s why audiences are responding to his latest action film, “The Grey.” The film came in first over the just-wrapped weekend, earning $20 million without any big stars beyond Neeson and no existing brand to bank on. Neeson stars as a depressed sharpshooter who must survive the elements, and a hungry pack of nearby wolves, when his plane goes down in freezing terrain.
Compare the box office results for “The Grey” to the opening weekend haul of Taylor Lautner’s “Abduction” from late last year:
Lautner’s got Neeson by 40-odd years, and you just know Neeson doesn’t have six-pack abs like Mr. “Twilight.” Audiences didn’t care. They responded to the way Neeson goes about his business on screen. It’s never smooth or calculated, but Neeson’s characters settle scores and survive in a way that hearkens back to how male movie stars used to behave on screen.
He’s a man’s man, and that makes him a rarity in today’s Hollywood.
Neeson rejuvenated his career with “Taken,” the 2008 surprise smash that cast him as an older spy who could still crush anyone who gets in his way. Even “Unknown,” a deeply silly action film, earned a respectable sum with Neeson going through the motions.
Actors typically don’t reinvent themselves as action heroes later in life. The elder statesmen of the action genre – think Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris and Harrison Ford – are simply giving audiences more of what they’ve come to expect from them.
What middle-aged actor would turn to his agent and say, after years of playing serious roles, that he wants to be the next Steven Seagal?
The soon to be 60-year-old Neeson matters because he’s bringing something fresh to theaters, the sense of a fully capable alpha male who doesn’t regret taking decisive action. And assuming a bum knee doesn’t force his exit from the action genre, who’s to say we won’t be watching Neeson wrecking havoc on his cinematic foes well into his 60s.