There are other screen tough guys, ones who are better trained in stunts or more at ease looking like Rambo. Some of them are more pumped, some have more pithy one-liners, and others are more prolific. But in terms of over-60 stoic masculinity, Liam Neeson currently stands alone. He’s taken the gravitas and depth he cultivated as an Oscar-Nominated Serious Actor and used it to make a late-act career switch as AARP’s favorite action hero all the more ridiculous. This is a man who played Oskar Schindler and Zeus, who’s been up for Academy Awards and voiced literature’s favorite Jesus-Christ-Superlion Aslan in the Narnia films. Could anyone besides Neeson be the subject of the contender for Key & Peele‘s best ever sketch?
Eventually, the 62-year-old Irish actor became the rarest of things: a deadly serious badass, a punchline who was in on the joke. Before the release of his latest thriller Run All Night, we’ve taken a look back at 10 films that have helped create the Liam Neeson we know and love. Then we asked the question: Pound for pound, film for film, exactly how badass is he on the Neesonometer? You’re about to find out.
Sam Raimi’s cult classic is genuinely amazing — a more or less original superhero movie, blending the decidedly bleaker future of the soon-to-be-omnipresent genre with its Gothic, arch recent past and way ahead of its time. And as Dr. Peyton Westlake, the obsessive (and obsessively practical) scientist who becomes Darkman, Neeson embodies the uneasy, manic spirit of the film.
After being burned beyond recognition by mobsters, Westlake has his sense of touch severed by an experimental surgery, giving him super-strength and super emotional instability. He turns to synthetic skin to disguise himself. Neeson gets to break a man’s fingers over a pink carnival elephant and get a henchman killed by disguising him as — wait for it — Liam Neeson. The over-the-top intensity of the movie and its title character is, in retrospect, a perfect encapsulation of the rest of the star’s career — a good actor hiding underneath layers of badass disguises. At the beginning of the movie, Westlake appears to be a respectable citizen working to progress his chosen field. By the end, he’s an enraged, brooding anti-hero, and thanks to the actor, one who’s destined for dark-knight hall-of-fame status.
Badass Rating: 8/10
Schindler’s List (1993)
The movie that made Neeson’s career, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winner is essentially the foundation of his reputation as a serious actor. He was apparently picked to play Oskar Schindler, the famed German who saved over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust, because he didn’t have prior associations in the way other, more A-list movie stars might. In turn, the part catapulted Neeson into that level of stardom — to the point where he was reportedly approached to play James Bond, though he turned it down because he thought it was “too frivolous.”
As much as Schindler’s List has a reputation for being difficult to watch (thanks, Seinfeld), it’s still a Steven Spielberg movie. And, in turn, Neeson, plays a standard Spielberg hero — slick, gruff, and good-hearted, a bit more genteel than Raiders-era Harrison Ford, but not by much. Still, Oskar Schindler is a rightly praised character. His outrage at the suffering inflicted during the Holocaust is one thing, but his anger, and what it leads him to do, is another. Neeson manages to pull off both aspects wonderfully. He might not be slaughtering terrorists, but he saves the lives of thousands of Jews, is rakish in the process, and creates a very real person. Boom!
Badass Rating: 7/10
Rob Roy (1995)
Unfortunately, the success of Schindler’s List resulted in Neeson being catnip for producers of ponderous, bloated historical epics that inevitably feel compelled to run more than two hours. (Do not get us started on his turn in the non-musical adaptation of Les Misérables.) Here, he’s Rob Roy MacGregor, a Scottish folk hero and outlaw who stands up to the British, drawing justified Robin Hood comparisons. Neeson barely gets anything to do, stuffed into a role that seems like it should have been played by Mel Gibson (and not in a good way).
In terms of badass-ery, you’re better off going with the film’s foppish villain Archibald Cunningham, played with horrifying, sadistic relish by Tim Roth. As for our hero, he does some vaguely cool things (check him out trash talking and going TCB on a highlander in the above clip), but Roy is mostly stuck sliding down some rapids and yelling about how his honor relies on protecting women. It’s too bad that the movie forces Neeson to be a bastion of this particular type of masculinity while positioning all of his enemies as feminine British aristocrat-types. You know what’s not badass? Heteronormativity.
Badass Rating: 3/10
Michael Collins (1996)
At least Neeson’s subsequent big, vaguely historical, eponymous movie about a dashing European guy is better. Writer-director Neil Jordan casts Neeson as another borderline folk hero — in this case, the director of intelligence for the Irish Republican Army after the Easter Rising of 1916. The first half of the movie allows Neeson to be a true badass, inventing many tactics for modern guerrilla urban war, culminating in the Godfather-style Bloody Sunday assassinations of British intelligence agents. And it allows him to give several good, rousing speeches, capturing the actor’s ability to portray a commanding leader in both action and intellect.
Sadly, the second half throws him into the cinematic equivalent of a Seven Minutes in Heaven closet with Julia Roberts, proving that Neeson rarely has romantic chemistry on-screen. (This should not be confused with his later movie Five Minutes of Heaven, which Neeson does not involve him making out with fellow Irishman James Nesbitt.) And once Collins has beaten the British, he falls in an internal struggle against his former comrades, Éamon de Valera (Alan Rickman) and Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn). By the end, he’s empty, ravaged, and unhinged — qualities that are great in Darkman but are less well-used here. His performance in what’s essentially a boilerplate biopic did earn Neeson a Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival, but it also marked an end to his full-fledged, effortless seriousness.
Badass Rating: 5/10
Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace (1999)
Look: Some incoherent messes starring Liam Neeson with tons of colorful explosions just aren’t fun. We are dealing with what’s arguably the nadir of all possible Badass Neesons, as well as the worst Jedi in the worst movie in the entire Star Wars franchise — and possibly its worst character, period. (That’s including Jar-Jar Binks and Dexter Jettster. Yeah, we said it.)
Beyond the general terribleness of The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn is such a bad character that he deserves special treatment: He takes Anakin Skywalker out of slavery yet pointedly doesn’t free Anakin’s mother; ignores the Council’s wishes and gets the Jedis involved in a trade war that doesn’t concern them; and basically sets in motion the entire series events of that will culminate in millions of deaths and decades of Empire-related strife in a galaxy far, far away. It seems unbelievable that Neeson looks back on the movie fondly, and is even interested in playing Qui-Gon again. But the notion makes a warped kind of sense. Wooden or not, he does ridiculous action things (with a lightsaber) and gets to be the “wise old action hero,” even if it fails miserably. And all this just six years after being nominated for an Oscar.
Badass Rating: 2/10
Love, Actually (2003)
It’s hard for anyone to be a badass in what is perhaps the least badass movie ever made. The Christmas epic of intertwined romance and cheese finds Neeson as Daniel, a man whose wife has recently died and is struggling to take care of his stepson, Sam. Daniel does allows himself to be something like a peer for the boy, however, as well as counseling the kid in his quest to attract the attention of a girl. In short: Dad Liam Neeson is a surprisingly badass Neeson. That he somehow manages to start dating Claudia Schiffer just a few weeks after his spouse’s passing helps make the case, as does that fact that, within the movie, he’s contending with Hugh Grant and that obnoxious guy who hooks up with Shannon Elizabeth in America. The man practically wins by default.
Dad Badass Rating: 5/10
Batman Begins (2005)
He’s introduced as the dapper Henri Ducard, Bruce Wayne’s teacher and mentor in the ways of mondo ass-kicking. But fans of Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboots know him better as Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows and the mastermind behind the attempted destruction of Gotham. While he careens into ridiculous awesomeness just a few years later in his career, the star is surprisingly reserved here, drawing on multiple sides of himself by simultaneously playing a mentor (dad Neeson) and villain (badass Neeson) — a talent that’s going come in very handy for actor three years down the road.
Ra’s al Ghul is essentially the definition of “refined enemy,” — and therein lies the problem. He’s too put together to ever fully come across as a real, unchecked threat in the same manner as, say, Heath Ledger’s Joker or Tom Hardy’s Bane. Neeson is a pretty good opponent…just not the franchise’s best.
Badass Rating: 6/10
By now, Bryan Mills is the Liam Neeson character, wrapped up in an insane, totally committed emotional logic that’s turned a movie even the actor expected to go straight-to-DVD into the cornerstone of a major franchise. With a borderline-ludicrous, yet dynamite premise — what if human traffickers picked the worst possible person to kidnap? — Taken builds to a series of taut, singularly-motivated action sequences, all driven by Neeson’s drive to get his daughter back.
Bryan might not be the best father (certainly, he’s had people “taken” enough times that he might want to reconsider his approach to family safety), but he is undeniably a great intelligence operative, soldier, and all-around badass. Yes, the sequels range from facepalmingly frustrating to flat-out ridiculous, but just listen to the first film’s infamous, meme-worthy phone speech about a particular set of skills and try not to be terrified. Terrified that Liam Neeson will look for you. Terrified that he will find you. Terrified that he will kill you.
Badass Rating: 10/10
The Grey (2011)
The most serious of Neeson’s late-period movies where he kills things, this survivalist thriller finds him playing John Ottway, a professional hunter who uses his particular set of skills to prevent wolves from killing his fellow passengers after their plane crashes in the Alaskan tundra. The Grey is all about Neeson braving things — the elements, lupine apex predators, the stranded oil workers who don’t take kindly to being given orders and most of all, the script, which doesn’t flesh out Ottway’s character so much throw obstacles in his way.
Not that it matters: With blessedly little exposition, director Joe Carnahan’s film relies heavily on Neeson to make the audience care whether or not he gets eaten by wolves. It turns out that yes, in fact, we do! The most important part of the film is watching a man who was going to commit suicide anyway watch as everyone dies around him — and then deciding that he truly wants to live. Neeson’s fantastic acting moment comes at the end of the movie, when he really gets to cut loose; it’s made all the more powerful by the then-recent death of his wife, Natasha Richardson, something director Carnahan leaned on heavily during production. Also, did we mention that he fights off wolves with little more than glass shards taped to his fists? That’s badass.
Badass Rating: 9/10
A man with nothing left to lose, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, trapped in a locked-room mystery that’s also on a plane — all of these elements are pretty familiar. But by now, Liam Neeson is so good at doing lean, vaguely emotionally realistic action roles that his could play such a part in his sleep. (And he has: See 2011’s Unknown.) Thankfully, in the case of Jaume Collett-Serra’s terrorism-at-30,000-feet potboiler, Neeson neither phones things in more strays far from his comfort zone. This is who he is now. He’s not hijacking the plane, he’s trying to save it.
There are a few armrest-grabbing moments, but mostly, framed air marshal Bill Marks stands around and looks intense, gets into a few fights and then frequently engages in possibly the most badass behavior of Neeson’s career: receiving text messages on a plane. Liam Neeson has now settled in, secure in his identity as a star who’s capable of grabbing a gun in mid-air when a 747’s cabin depressurizes and somehow making you think, yeah, I can see that happening because it’s him. That alone should be enough to put butts in seats for at least a few more years — to quote Key and Peele’s excitable superfans, “Liam Neesons in Non-Stop is my jam!” Well said, gentlemen. Well said.
Badass Rating: 6/10