Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
While Liam Neeson has never been a stranger to the action genre throughout his career, it wasn’t until the release of Taken in 2008 that Hollywood fully realized just how convincing of an action hero he could really be. His ex-Special Ops agent with “a very specific set of skills” was an action hero for the modern era, an everyday guy capable of slaughtering half of France with his bare hands. And now that the series is finally coming to an end with this week’s release of Taken 3, or rather Tak3n as it’s delightfully titled on the poster, we thought it’d be a good time to look back at some of his best, or at least most interesting, action offerings. Good luck.
10. Admiral Shane
Stay with us, here. While Neeson’s shown up in a substantial number of action movies over the past few years, not all of them have been winners. Despite the swath of worthwhile films on this list, there have also been entries that ranged from overblown (Kingdom of Heaven, at least the theatrical release) to eminently forgettable (either of the Titans offerings). So, in considering the nether realms of Neeson’s action-star filmography, the definition of quality sometimes fluctuates.
Enter Battleship. Is it ridiculous? Sure. A toy commercial? Emphatically so. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun at points if you’re the sort of viewer who can appreciate a good, loud, dumb, over-the-top-to-the-point-where-the-top-no-longer-exists summer movie. It’s not Citizen Kane by a damn sight, but it’s a film in which Battleship is played, a tanker is drifted in a spectacular maritime approximation of The Fast and the Furious. Either that’s for you, or it’s not. Just keep an open mind. -Dominick Mayer
09. Bryan Millis
Taken 2 (2012)
It’s not the first film. By a long shot. With the immaculately named Olivier Megaton taking over directorial duties from Pierre Morel, Taken 2 loses a little bit of the over-the-top verve of its predecessor, but replaces it with some Bourne-style international violence. And that latter bit is the one thing the sequel doesn’t skimp on; at one point, Neeson conducts an impromptu torture session by electrocution in a basement.
This time it’s Neeson who ends up taken, as the result of a Turkish vacation with his wife (Famke Janssen) and daughter (Maggie Grace), all of whom still seem perfectly interested in travelling despite the overall poor turnout of their prior vacation. (Grace’s yen for singing, so integral to the first film, is regrettably excluded.) It’s all B-movie gunplay and car chases, the primary stock in trade for a franchise that’s about to come to an essential end. -Dominick Mayer
08. Dr. Martin Harris
One could hardly be blamed for approaching Unknown with a healthy amount of cynicism. Arriving not long after Taken, its trailer promised more of the same beat-’em-up action in another European capital, leading some to dismiss it as an attempt to capitalize on Taken’s box-office success. That’s too bad, because Unknown is arguably the smarter and definitely the more intriguing of the two films. Neeson pours everything he has into the role of Dr. Martin Harris, who awakens after a car accident in Berlin to find that his wife no longer knows him and another man has stolen his identity.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra wisely withholds key plot details from the audience, even going so far as to plant a few false leads for those paying close attention. As a result, the film consistently holds interest throughout its nearly two hours, though it falters in the final act that follows the big reveal. Playing opposite the stiff German actress Diane Kruger and January Jones, whose acting range seems limited to blushing and looking vaguely uncomfortable, Neeson is forced to carry the film and doesn’t buckle under the weight. Besides him, the most interesting character here is Berlin, a city with its own fractured identity and one that Collet-Serra uses well. –Collin Brennan
07. John “Hannibal” Smith
The A-Team (2010)
For The A-Team, Liam gives up his straight-laced, sincere persona in a failed attempt to launch a new action franchise. He plays Hannibal Smith, an Iraq War veteran who chomps on cigars and spouts witty one-liners while wrangling a ragtag group of military outcasts. In addition to the new Schwarzenegger-esque personality, this role is also a departure from the typical Neeson vehicle in that its action sequences are over-the-top and cartoonish rather than grounded in any sort of reality. Consider the film’s grandest set-piece, where the crew parachutes from a plane in a tank, all while shooting missiles to help steer the massive vessel towards safety. Sure, it’s imaginative, but it also lacks the grit and maturity we’ve come to expect from a Liam Neeson joint. If nothing else, The A-Team is a notable entry in Neeson’s filmography because it established a working relationship between the actor and Joe Carnahan, who went on to direct him in The Grey. –Adriane Neuenschwander
06. Bill Marks
And here’s where Neeson starts to blur the lines between gravitas and self-parody. But yet, almost in spite of itself, Non-Stop is a pretty great time. Neeson plays a federal air marshal who’s, like most of his heroes, just trying to get from one place to another with minimal incident. And then he starts to get text messages from an anonymous sender, threatening to murder a passenger every 20 minutes if Neeson doesn’t send them $150 million immediately.
Yeah, it’s just a tad ridiculous, but Non-Stop finds its wings (I’m so sorry) with a refreshing dose of self-awareness about that very fact. But it’s Neeson who saves the film from a descent into late-‘90s action movie camp. He injects the film with just enough world-weary grit to keep it alof… no. One plane pun is enough. -Dominick Mayer
05. Robert Roy MacGregor
Rob Roy (1995)
Liam Neeson stands at a hulking 6’4” and weighs in at well over 200 pounds. His impressive size served him well onstage at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, but few directors have since shown any interest in translating it to the screen. Rob Roy’s Michael Caton-Jones is the notable exception, frequently using wide shots to emphasize Neeson’s intimidating girth and make his portrayal of the Scottish clan chief all the more fearful. Working alongside the brilliant Jessica Lange and Tim Roth, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of the smarmy Archibald Cunningham, Neeson couldn’t hope to steal the show with his acting chops. He does, however, manage to steal a few action sequences thanks to his sheer physicality.
One such sequence is the film’s final duel, between MacGregor and Cunningham. To call it one of the best fight scenes in movie history would hardly be an exaggeration; Caton-Jones cuts the music and leans heavily on his actors to deliver, and deliver they do. Cunningham’s systematic slicing apart of MacGregor never fails to elicit a good wince, and Roth does his part by circling around the room like a maddening peacock. But again, it’s Neeson’s size relative to his puny counterpart that convinces us of the inevitable outcome. Perhaps he’s played more physically demanding roles in the years since, but he’s never used his body better. –Collin Brennan
04. Matthew Scudder
A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
A Walk Among the Tombstones — the most recent release on our list — puts a new spin on the classic Neeson action hero. As a recovering alcoholic and retired cop named Matt Scudder, he’s still tortured and still hyper-skilled. But this time he’s also haggard and exhausted; he abhors violence but can’t seem to escape it. When a thug points a gun at his head, his character admits, “Maybe I don’t care if you shoot me or not … in some way you’d be doing me a big favor.”
This is Liam Neeson transitioning into the role of the action genre’s elder statesman. He can still knock a guy out with a single punch (and he does), but he’d rather step aside and let the next generation take the lead (The Guest’s Dan Stevens, in this case). Of course, when that young buck trips up, Neeson is still there to finish the job. A Walk Among the Tombstones may not be the actor’s most adrenaline-fueled character in the genre, but it’s easily his most layered. –Adriane Neuenschwander
Like most of Sam Raimi’s best films, Darkman is a spectacle of camp that knows exactly what it is — even if “what it is” is a strange amalgamation of revenge fantasy, superhero origin story, and zombie-fueled horror. Neeson plays the role of Dr. Peyton Westlake, a good-hearted scientist on the brink of stabilizing a process to create artificial skin tissue for burn victims. Though frustrated with his efforts, it turns out that he couldn’t have picked a more fortuitous field. When Westlake’s lawyer girlfriend (Frances McDormand) stumbles across an incriminating email sent by her crooked client (Colin Friels), some henchmen pay a visit to his lab and leave him badly burned. Naturally, he recovers (well, mostly) and uses his talents to exact gory revenge on those who wronged him.
WIth its outlandish visual style and hilariously inventive violence, Darkman is comic in every sense of the word. And yet, for all of its cartoonish bluster, this is essentially a story of an insecure man losing control of his psyche and giving in to the darkness within. Raimi cares far more about his central character than he does his flimsy plot, and Neeson rewards him with a versatile performance that justifies the attention. For the director, Darkman marks the neat midway point between Evil Dead and the higher-profile Spider-Man franchise he would later helm. And for the actor? It’s only the first in a career-defining chain of revenge fantasies that would grow grimmer and grittier over the years (hello, Taken) but never recapture the same sloppy magic. –Collin Brennan
02. Bryan Millis
It’s fair to say that this is the film responsible for making Liam Neeson a sought-after action star. In fact, a full 70% of the movies on this list were produced after the success of Taken, and that should come as no surprise given Neeson’s now-iconic performance as Bryan Mills, a windpipe-crushing ex-CIA operative with a very specific set of skills. With this character, Neeson casts the mold for many of his subsequent roles: a professional ass-kicker working on the fringes, a troubled soul who only gets violent when pushed.
Part of what makes this role one of the most memorable and frequently imitated in Liam’s oeuvre is his character’s outlandish degree of expertise. He can shoot guns with remarkable accuracy, punch faces with unexpected brutality, and stunt drive with astonishing velocity. Hell, he can even take out an entire ring of sex traffickers over a cup of coffee, then still find time to assemble a makeshift electric chair. He’s every ‘80s action star rolled into one dude, and he’s a helluva father to boot. –Adriane Neuenschwander
The Grey (2011)
Of Neeson’s recent renaissance as an action star, The Grey is not only the best of his starring vehicles, but also probably the biggest outlier. After all, unlike most of the films on this list, The Grey is less an outright actioner than a solemn meditation on masculinity and death, as conveyed through Neeson’s Ottway, one of a host of lone men working at a remote Alaskan oil drilling site. While headed back to more habitable territory, their plane crashes, in a horrorshow of quickly moving carnage.
As they’re left stranded, tasked with surviving both the elements and a roving pack of wolves looking for slow-moving food, The Grey taps into the primal terror of mortality and the inevitability of every man meeting his end, no matter his resolve. And at the center of it is Neeson’s steely resolve, even as the situation grows ever more violent, as a man with absolutely nothing left but his dignity and will to survive. It’s as raw a performance as he’s ever given. –Dominick Mayer