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!”
There is one sure fire way to know that “Unknown” is an action film and not some sly spy documentary starring a man who looks a lot like Liam Neeson. It comes late in the movie and it’s a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moment when Neeson, playing Dr. Martin Harris, studies his passport. His date of birth is listed as 1964. Fiction. Pure fiction and off by about twelve years. Unfortunately that’s not the only thing off about this dull excuse for a psychological drama.
The fifty-nine-year-old actor plays Dr. Harris, a biochemist who travels to Berlin with his wife Liz (the thirty-two-year-old January Jones) to attend a convention. Everything changes following a car accident. When he wakes up from a four day coma his identification and identity is gone. His wife doesn’t recognize him and worse, she’s with another man who claims to be Dr. Martin Harris. Alone in Germany he recruits an illegal Bosnian immigrant (Diane Kruger) and a private eye (Bruno Ganz) to get to the bottom of this mystery.
A couple of years ago, Neeson tore Paris apart searching for his kidnapped daughter in an enjoyably trashy Euro-thriller called “Taken.” “I’ll tear down the Eiffel Tower if I have to,” he said, veins bulging in his forehead. The trailer for his latest flick, “Unknown,” promises more of the same, but instead delivers almost two hours of Neeson shouting “I am Dr. Martin Harris!” at anyone who’ll listen as the movie limps from one dreary set piece to another. It’s endless minutes of co-incidences, Cold War references and dramatic pauses.
Neeson, as usual, is convincing, or I should say, as convincing as this script will allow him to be, but is let down by a script that has him delivering melodramatic lines like, “Do you know what it feel like to become insane?” and a co-star in January Jones who is quickly proving that Betty Draper may be a career high for her.
Despite a car chase or two “Unknown” isn’t an action film, nor is it Euro-trashy enough to be as fun as “Taken” or interesting enough to succeed as a psychological drama.
A couple of years ago, Liam Neeson reintroduced North American audiences to the joys of the Euro-trashy-thriller. In Taken he played a retired undercover agent who rips Paris apart searching for his kidnapped daughter. “I’ll tear down the Eiffel Tower if I have to,” he said.
The French tourist attraction was left standing, but he laid waste to the rest of the city in the movie’s wild action scenes.
Neeson is back this weekend in Unknown, another Euro-thriller that sees him cut a swath through Berlin while trying to get to the bottom of a deadly mystery involving identity theft, shadowy assassins and, of course, European carnage.
Euro-thrillers are characterized not just by their exotic locations, beautiful stars and international intrigue but by an attitude. They are about glamour, style and over-the-top stories.
A catchy title is also important. The 1967 Euro-heist flick 28 Minutes for 3 Million Dollars wasn’t much of a movie, but the name was a grabber. Ditto Agent for H.AR.M., an outlandish Eurospy movie with a bad guy who bears an uncanny resemblance to Pee Wee Herman. More fun is an Italian sci-fi comedy caper called Kiss the Girls and Make them Die starring Mike Connors (later famous as detective Mannix on TV) in a James Bond rip-off that’s almost as good as the real thing.
Then, what’s a great Euro movie without a cool score? Movies like 1967’s spy parody Kiss Kiss… Bang Bang featured a playful, loungetastic Bruno Nicolai score that sets the scene perfectly, and Ann Margaret’s songs in Appointment in Beirut can only be described as kitschy-cool.
The next ingredient is a wild premise. It doesn’t get much stranger than Bandaged, a German film about a deranged man who transplants the face of his late wife on his deformed daughter. Or how about LSD Inferno? In it the bad guy—an inventively named Mister X—wants to dose everyone in the world with acid.
After that, all that’s needed is a great villain—like Adolfo Celi and his criminal organisation T.H.A.N.A.T.O.S. in OK Connery—and some gadgets—like Mission Bloody Mary’s rooms that double as microwave ovens. Then top with hot leads like Matchless’s Patrick O’Neal, who plays a secret agent who can turn invisible or Daniela Bianchi, the former Miss Rome who va-va-voomed her way through 15 films, including From Russia with Love, and you get a unique and fun night at the movies.