The Wrath of Liam Neeson: The ‘Taken 2’ Star’s Action Hero Transformation

With Taken 2 in theaters Friday—and predicted to bring in a huge haul—Marlow Stern examines how Liam Neeson morphed into one of Hollywood’s biggest (and most convincing) action heroes.

Magali Bragard / EUROPACORP

Liam Neeson, 60, has always cut an imposing figure. A sturdy 6 feet 4, he is a giant by Hollywood standards. His Roman nose, chiseled cheekbones, and baritone voice—the voice of God, as it were, in the Chronicles of Narnia films—contrast with his affected, squinty green-blue eyes. Before he became a hero in Schindler’s List and taught Obi-Wan Kenobi the ways of the Jedi in that bizarre Star Wars prequel, Neeson was an amateur heavyweight boxing champion in Ulster, Ireland—which he followed up with a stint as a forklift operator for Guinness beer. He even auditioned for the role of Fezzik, the gentle giant, in The Princess Bride—but lost out to Andre the Giant.

But it wasn’t until the 2009 action thriller Taken—where he kicked ass as a former CIA operative who goes on a roaring rampage to save his daughter after she is kidnapped in Paris—that Neeson emerged as a bona fide action hero. Made for a meager $26 million, the film was a massive hit, earning more than $226 million worldwide—surprising everyone, including Neeson himself.

“I thought [Taken] was going to be a straight-to-video release,” Neeson told Metro. “That is actually one of the reasons I did it, to be honest. I felt like spending three months in Paris, I’d get to do all this physical stuff that no one would think of me for, and that the film would go straight to video. Then it became this big success. I was a tiny bit embarrassed by it, a tiny bit, but then people started sending me action scripts.”

The sleeper hit spawned a sequel, Taken 2, in theaters Friday—and industry analysts are already predicting that the sequel will gross a whopping $40 million in its opening weekend. Neeson reprises his role as Bryan Mills, except now the father of one of the kidnappers he killed in the first film is out for revenge. Mills’s ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), and daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), surprise him in Istanbul, only to have their reunion ruined when Lenore is taken while Kim narrowly escapes. If that weren't enough, the aptly named Olivier Megaton, who chose the artistic surname Megaton because he was born exactly 20 years after Hiroshima—really—directs it.

Neeson may have accidentally stumbled upon a lucrative second act as one of Hollywood’s premier action stars, but why have movie-going audiences so wholeheartedly embraced this reinvention? Sure, it’s good fun to see a talented thespian morph into an against-type action hero—like Nicolas Cage’s stretch in the mid-‘90s or Christian Bale’s post-Machinist output—and there is, of course, the novelty of seeing Oskar Schindler gone gangster. Plus Neeson, with his towering height, brawny physique, and gravelly voice, sure as hell looks the part.

But there’s something else at work here.

All of his action roles in the post-Taken era invoke a certain degree of pathos: they’re wronged father figures or husbands struggling to reattach broken bonds, whether it’s as Dr. Martin Harris, a brainwashed man trying to reconnect with the woman he believes to be his wife, in Unknown or John Ottway, a wolf puncher lost in the Alaskan wilderness—and separated from his wife—in The Grey. Even in the busy Hollywood blockbusters Clash of the Titans and The A-Team, he plays a father—or father figure—attempting to save his “family.”

There’s even more to these roles when Neeson’s personal life is considered—just weeks before the release of Taken, Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson, died from a traumatic brain injury incurred while skiing in Quebec.

Neeson has since raised the couple’s two sons, Michael and Daniel, in upstate New York.

“I think I survived by running away some. Running away to work,” he told Esquire. “Listen, I know how old I am and that I'm just a shoulder injury from losing roles like the one in Taken. So I stay with the training, I stay with the work. It’s easy enough to plan jobs, to plan a lot of work. That's effective. But that’s the weird thing about grief. You can’t prepare for it. You think you’re gonna cry and get it over with. You make those plans, but they never work.”

In Taken 2, Neeson’s Mills is trying to rekindle the love he once had with his ex-wife, Lenore (Janssen), whom he affectionately calls Lenny.

“She said when you guys met that it was ... magical,” his daughter, Kim (Grace), tells him in the early going. When Lenore is, along with Mills, captured by thugs, Mills is forced to watch as his wife’s neck is sliced and she is hung upside down, leaving him 30 minutes to save her before she loses too much blood and dies. Mills eventually frees himself but must go on the hunt for his former wife when she’s taken again—and he must save her before she dies from blood loss. Mills will, of course, stop at nothing to reclaim his ex-wife and disposes of many, many, many henchmen along the way.

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Early on in the film, Lenore criticizes Mills, saying, “When you commit to something, you kind of focus all of your energy there ... like a dog with a bone.” If this sounds terribly familiar, that’s because, well, it is ... and isn’t.