A moratorium on the ironic bad ass

In case you hadn’t heard, a little action movie named Taken 2 opened nationwide this past weekend. It also made a ton of money — $50 million in its first three days — and if you’re curious, it’s on pace to be the third biggest opening for an October release. Ever. That’s a big deal, especially since the critical consensus pegs it as little more than a copy of the original. I haven’t seen it, and if I’m being honest, I’ve little desire to in the near future. Still, a sequel that nearly doubles Taken‘s opening weekend begs one question: Why Liam Neeson?

I’ll go one better: Why Liam Neeson now?

At the risk of sounding like a contrarian dick, I am a fan of Neeson’s work. Even if it were the actor’s only other role, rogue master Qui-Gon Jinn would still be among Phantom Menace’s few real strengths. And that’s in spite of Lucas’s wooden midichlorian exposition. You could look to Neeson’s eponymous performance in Schindler’s List or to Woody Allen’s Husband and Wives, which arguably put him on the Hollywood radar. Go back even further though to 1990 and Sam Raimi’s Darkman, with Liam Neeson headlining an urban Gothic about a failed scientist turned renegade crime fighter. Now a cult classic, Darkman turned its star anti-hero Dr. Peyton Westlake into a disfigured avenger with the power to change his appearance. Or to put it more bluntly, Neeson played an unlikely bad ass whom, when all he cared about was threatened, resorted to a very specific set of skills; skills he had acquired over a very long career; skills that made him a nightmare to people like…

Is any of this starting to sound familiar?

I’m not here to put up Pierre Morel’s very entertaining Taken against a military tribunal nor do I want to rip Neeson’s career. It’s one that’s spanned over thirty years, back to the days of bit parts in UK television productions. At the same time, he’s only recently seen a rebirth as an A-list bad ass, and at the ripe old age of 60. Why the sudden resurgence as action’s hottest commodity? And why didn’t it happen earlier after Phantom Menace or with his turn as Batman Begins’ Ra’s al Ghul? After all, the latter was released only three years before Morel’s own film. So why now?

Hipsters. Sort of.

Though it might sound absurd, Qui-Gon, Darkman, and even Ra’s all share one unique trait: none of their character arcs are age-dependent. Apart from its ‘fish out o’ water’ premise, Taken‘s  true charm stems from convincing us a then-56 year old retired CIA agent could beat the bloody hell out of ethnically ambiguous Euro trash. Make no mistake, Luc Besson and Robert Kamen’s script wants you to notice how old Bryan Mills is. Yes, he’s retired from his government post. He’s got an older daughter. He’s even out of touch with music.

But he’s such a bad ass! I agree, and it’s a blast to see Neeson have fun with a character who takes no prisoners and isn’t afraid to pop a dozen caps when necessary. In that sense, Taken’s very much a part of film’s storied obsession with antiheroes — Sam Spade, Vito Corleone, Han Solo, Tony Montana, John Rambo, the Terminator, Tyler Durden, etc. Much of the 90’s was spent obsessing over youth fantasies of revolt in Home Alone, 3 Ninjas, or Richie Rich. The almighty ubiquity of Powers Rangers episodes were fueled by teenage empowerment. One might even argue bad ass adolescents reached their zenith with releases like Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids (although the forthcoming Red Dawn remake seems intent on refuting this claim). Taken is a response to that. It’s an ironic mismatch, the inevitable blowback, and a wrinkly and stoic FU to Macaulay Culkin. It’s Pierre Morel’s way of telling a younger generation to sit down, shut up, and respect its elders. Bryan Mills is righting Hollywood’s course, but I think I’m getting too old for this ship.

In the four years since Taken’s success, Neeson has starred in seven action films and in roles ranging from Zeus (twice) to the A-Team’s Hannibal to a Battleship admiral. Even his return as Batman’s nemesis got a much bigger pop in my theater at midnight, and the Success Express has stopped for plenty of other passengers, too. Look no further than Michael Caine’s vigilante Harry Brown, a 2009 film intent on sagging the Bryan Mills archetype to the nth degree. Sly Stallone also owes some recognition to Mr. Mills, with two Expendables releases that practically stamped “I’m too old for this shit” right across its forehead. Jean Claude motherfucking Van Damme was just in another Universal Soldier entry. For Christ’s sake, Chuck Norris is 72 and somehow still considered cool. Enough’s enough.

My favorite Taken moment doesn’t involve much action at all, and it’s when Mills slyly combines an Albanian translator and a local pimp as a makeshift GPS unit. Improvised electrocutions aside, Mills’ real strength was always about his ingenuity, his ability to use that entire “set of skills,” not just whack scummy cronies with tribal band tattoos. Far be it from me to claim that a genre has said all it has to say, but the aging hero film has said all it has to say. Thankfully, there’s plenty of action territory left to explore, so long as we get more of this and less of this.

I’m not hating on Neeson for causing a deluge of geriatric action flicks, nor do I believe Taken is responsible for a clearly delusional Sly Stallone. One might even chalk up 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard as an obvious example against my argument. Calling out McClane’s aging issues was an inevitability the script acknowledges. The same might not be true of the upcoming A Good Day to Die Hard, but its predecessor smartly pokes fun of its older protagonist. I can absolutely accept that, especially since complimenting Len Wiseman is as good a sign as any that I should’ve stopped talking a while ago.


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