The many violent fantasies of Liam Neeson

What you see when you watch one of his action movies now

Liam Neeson.
(Image credit: Doane Gregory)

When Liam Neeson starred in the low-rent 2009 thriller Taken, what the movie had going for it was novelty: See the Oscar nominee (Schindler's List) and consummate on-screen mentor (Phantom Menace; Batman Begins) moonlight as a take-charge action hero. Taken didn't demand much from its star, but the gravitas Neeson brought to line about his "particular set of skills" was probably a big part of its surprise financial success.

Ten years later, seven or eight more Neeson action movies have turned him into a genuine movie star. But his recent run of action movies may be slowing with the release of his new picture Cold Pursuit — not because the movie isn't good (it is!), but because of Neeson's recent off-screen confession. After he answered a boilerplate interview question about revenge with an unsettlingly candid admission about roaming the streets as a young man, looking to commit a racist hate crime as revenge for a friend's rape, the premiere of his movie was canceled and Neeson was suddenly playing defense.

It's always tricky to figure out how much off-screen behavior can or should affect how a critic (or a fan) looks at a piece of art. Neeson's case is particularly complicated, for a number of conflicting factors: He volunteered information from his distant past, rather than attempting to cover it up; he discussed acting on a vile urge, but ultimately (through either happenstance or better judgment) not following it through to its tragic end; he expressed remorse for his actions, but not necessarily a clear understanding of just how racist they were (indeed, insisting later, after bringing up race, that race had little to do with it). It's also difficult to avoid that many of his recent movies, including Cold Pursuit, address notions of vigilante justice that can be coded or warped into the kinds of racist actions he described in the interview.

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As it happens, the violence in Cold Pursuit isn't tainted with the same xenophobia that powered the Taken trilogy. Neeson's most popular action movies also rank among his worst, perversely recasting him as an American killing his way through perilous foreign countries to retrieve various family members. In Cold Pursuit he plays a vengeful snowplow driver, which makes the movie seem like a parody of a Neeson action movie. His Nelson Coxman is a model citizen of a small Colorado town whose world is up-ended by the death of his son. It's ruled a drug overdose, but Coxman suspects foul play; soon enough he's killing his way up the chain of a powerful drug cartel, sparking a violent turf squabble in the process.

Cold Pursuit isn't quite a parody, but it's not quite business as usual, either. It's based on In Order Of Disappearance, a Norwegian film that's now streaming on Netflix, remade here by the same director, Hans Petter Moland. But does it matter that the movie's violence, while cartoonish, proceeds with a deadpan, quizzical sort of tone? That Moland isn't chasing mindless Taken-style sensation? The answers will vary depending on the audience — but ultimately, the movie is a little too flip to truly meditate on the costs of violence; whenever a character dies, their ridiculous mob nickname is tallied with on-screen text, and hardly anyone Coxman kills is afforded much audience sympathy.

But the deadpan film is also not the first time one of Neeson's action pictures have subverted his Taken image. The similarly wintry The Grey is more contemplative than its Neeson-versus-wolves trailers indicated, and his thrillers with Jaume Collet-Serra, like Non-Stop and Run All Night, emphasize his characters' human failings rather than their particular sets of skills. He's less avenging angel than stumbling screw-up trying for messy, often violent redemptions. Cold Pursuit reverses that trajectory, casting him as a good man succumbing to his killer instincts (and, admittedly, often regarding that process with deadpan detachment).

Part of what's so unnerving about Neeson's recent comments, then, is how easy it is to place them into a pulpy action-movie narrative. Plenty have asked what, exactly, possessed Neeson to share this particular story during an otherwise uneventful interview — and whether he related more to Taken than anyone initially thought. The latter is certainly possible, but his other thrillers suggest that, if anything, Neeson identifies more closely with the idea of a strong man thrown into trouble by a combination of bad luck and personal failings. If Taken resonated with audiences because of its righteousness, Neeson's other action hits offer a different sort of catharsis, a rather Catholic relief of guilt through suffering.

This doesn't excuse Neeson's real-life actions; if anything, it gives them the tint of movie-star self-aggrandizement, where violence is all part of the main character's redemption or fall, not an injustice for its direct victims. But if Neeson's clumsy, discomfiting confession makes bad movies like Taken and good ones like Cold Pursuit hard to watch, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Maybe it's an overdue reminder about the real-life ugliness that informs stories like this.

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