Much of the fun of 2008s Taken was watching beloved thespian Liam Neeson go all Chuck Norris in a dirty little Euro trash thriller.
In the action adventure movie Neeson played a former “preventer” for the US government. A specialist in black ops, he was an undercover agent who contained volatile situations before they got out of control. Retired, he lived in Los Angeles near his estranged seventeen-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). When she is kidnapped by a child slavery ring he has only 96 hours to use his “particular set of skills” to get her back. His rescue mission takes him on a wild rampage through the soft underbelly of Paris. “I’ll tear down the Eiffel Tower if I have to,” he says.
It’s a down-and-dirty little flick, classed up somewhat by the presence of Neeson in the lead role and it became an unexpected lightening-in-a-bottle hit. It also redefined Neeson’s recent career.
At an age when many actors are staring down the barrel of character parts and cameos, the sixty-one year old has made an unlikely U-turn into action movies. “I was a tiny bit embarrassed by it, “ he says of Taken, “but then people started sending me action scripts.”
Arguably best known for his Best Actor Oscar nomination as the charismatic but humble German businessman Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, the Irish actor has fully embraced his new career path. Vanity Fair even acknowledged the twist in an article called, “Wham! Bam! Thank You, Liam!”
His latest actioner is Non-Stop, a high-flying thriller that takes place on an international crossing from New York to London. Neeson is an air marshal who must prevent a crazed killer from murdering passengers in flight.
The actor’s rebirth as a gun-toting, neck snapping gravel-voiced Stallonite™—aging action star—works not only because he has the physical presence to be taken seriously as a hard man, but also because he has the acting chops to make us believe him as a ruthless and efficient killing machine.
Taken and Taken 2 (which were essentially the same movie) worked not just because the action sequences were out of control, but because audiences had some empathy for Neeson’s character as he kicked butt across Europe. It was a personal mission; he was trying to get his daughter back.
Action movies like Wrath of the Titans, The Grey and Unknown may not burnish Neeson’s rep as a great thespian, but when asked why he keeps making them, he has a solid reason: “Because they’re dumb enough to offer them to me!”
“The Grey,” the new Liam Neeson film, is an art house action movie. The bravado that colors most action flicks is gone, replaced by equal parts despair and intestinal fortitude.
Neeson plays John Ottway, a sharpshooter and Wolf Whisperer hired to keep predatory wolves out of an oil station in the remotest part of Alaska. He becomes the leader of a ragtag group of survivors when the plane transporting them to their oil job crashes in the wilderness. Hunted by wolves and exposed to the elements Ottway’s know-how is the only thing between freezing to death, or worse, becoming the big bad wolf’s dinner.
The thing that separates “The Grey” from other man versus nature movies is the characters. At first glance they are the usual assortment of rough and ready characters, the edgy chatterbox, the ex con, but soon nuances appear.
The point of the whole thing is survival, but along the way the cast (Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, and James Badge Dale) discuss the intricacies of life, shed tears, question faith and even recite poetry when not fighting off steely-eyed wolves. You won’t find this kind of behavior in other action movies because those films are about setting up the action and the payoff. “The Grey” isn’t, it wants you to get to know the men so when something awful happens to them, you care.
Mostly it works. (MILD SPOILER) The climax of Frank Grillos’ Diaz character is particularly effective as it gets to the very heart of why—or why not—this man will survive.
As good as the ensemble ism, this is Neeson’s movie. He plays a broken man who has recently lost his wife and the memory of her haunts him. He’s suicidal and lost, but learns a new lust for life in this adverse situation. Whether the tragic loss of his wife in real life informed this role, I wouldn’t presume to day, but there is a haunted quality to his performance that seems deeply felt.
Be warned, however, as intelligent as “The Grey” is, it’s also borders on horror, playing on fear of barren spaces—bring an extra scarf, the howling wind effect alone will chill you to the bone—and well, corpse eating wolves. But even though it is sometimes graphic, it still resonates emotionally.
Liam Neeson plays John Ottway, a sharpshooter hired to keep predatory wolves out of an oil station in the remotest part of Alaska. He becomes the leader of a ragtag group of survivors when the plane transporting them to their oil job crashes in the wilderness. Hunted by wolves and exposed to the elements, Ottway’s know-how is the only thing between freezing to death or, worse, becoming the big bad wolf’s dinner.
Richard: Chris, the thing that separates The Grey from other man-versus-nature movies is the characters. At first glance they are the usual assortment of rough and ready characters: the edgy chatterbox, the ex con. But soon nuances appear. They shed tears and even recite poetry when not fighting off steely-eyed wolves. Most action movies are only concerned about setting up the action and the payoff. The Grey isn’t. It wants you to get to know the men so when something awful happens to them, you care.
Chris: That’s what I found so disarming about the picture, that lyricism. The trailer certainly leads you to believe that it’s all about Neeson suiting up with busted bottle fingertips, growling and boxing toothy timber-wolves. And while we DO get that, its strength is that tapestry of characters and how instead of becoming more savage as their situation becomes more desperate, they become more human. This is as much Hemingway as it is horror show. Speaking of horror … what did you think about those wolves? Did you buy it?
RC: For me the wolves were the least interesting part of the movie. They make for cunning foes, but Neeson’s Wolf Whisperer character defanged some of the horror because he understood and was able to explain their behaviour. A dose of unpredictability might have been scarier for me. Having said that, I still wouldn’t want to meet up with any of the movie’s wolves, no matter how much CGI was involved.
CA: Ahhhh…I loved them. Of course, they are not based in reality by any stretch. But that’s OK, neither was Bruce the Shark in Jaws. The wolves are death itself, stalking the men, toying with them, picking them off randomly and without warning in novel and gruesome ways. On that tip, The Grey is kind of the spiritual sister to the Final Destination films. OK, that may be a stretch, but the wolves and their almost supernatural presence really do push the film into an almost surreal area that I liked. And I’d be willing to bet some viewers won’t like them for that very reason…
RC: The wolves, I guess, are the film’s hook, but for me it’s all about the characters. Come for the wolves! Stay for the characters!
CA: Well, whether it be wolves, sensitive manly men or a glimpse into the snowy hell that we’ve mercifully been spared this year, The Grey is spectacular entertainment.
This Christmas I got a book titled The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.
Contained within were tidbits of information on how to survive shark attack, a volcano eruption, even what to do when the pilot passes out leaving you to land the plane.
It’s an interesting read, but I am a visual person and have learned much more about survival from watching movies than from the pages of this book.
From this weekend’s The Grey, a man versus nature tale starring Liam Neeson, I learned that empty airplane booze bottles can be broken, wedged between your fingers and repurposed as Wolverine-style knuckles of death.
Hopefully I’ll never have to use that trick, but it is just one of many lessons learned at the movies.
Alive, the story of Uruguay’s rugby team whose plane crashed in the middle of the Andes mountains, I learned that cannibalism is a good way to stave off hunger pangs.
A similar lesson was taught in the Robert Redford film Jeremiah Johnson, based on a real-life trapper named John Johnston, nicknamed “Liver Eater Johnston” for his habit for cutting out and eating the livers of men he killed.
From the true-to-life mountain climbing movies 127 Hours and Touching the Void, I learned perseverance.
In the former a man is wedged literally between a rock and a hard place. To get free he cuts off his own arm with a pocketknife. Now that’s stick-to-itive-ness!
The latter sees a man with a severely broken leg crawling his way out of a deep crevice to safety.
From Cast Away, Tom Hanks’s stranded-on-a-desert-isle movie, I learned how to build a raft from a portable toilet, and how, in lieu of friends, a soccer ball with a bloody handprint can be man’s best friend.
Should you find yourself stranded on a snowshoer mountain top think back to the Lance Henriksen movie Survival Quest; not only does it teach viewers to forage for food and raft raging waters, but also how to dig an ice cave to survive the bitter cold.
In case of a zombie attack the classic George A. Romero movies teach us all we need to know. Remember the rhyme: “Shoot the living dead in the head.”
Should you find yourself in mortal combat with a monster, another tip learned from dozens of other horror films suggests that once you’ve slain the creature, don’t double check to make sure its really dead.