It was recently reported that Steven Seagal (remember him?) has been flaunting his pejorative opinions about Liam Neeson. According to the aikido action hero of yesteryear, Neeson is “not an action movie guy”. Now if we were going of his on-screen persona, like so many of us rightly enjoy doing, Liam Neeson is the last person you would want to start something with. But Seagal’s remarks bring to the forefront an interesting question – just what is it that makes an “action movie guy”?
Maybe the self-crowned king of the action movie, Sylvester Stallone, has an answer. Recently at the Cannes Film Festival, he and his uber-masculine cast rolled into town on the top of tanks to promote the upcoming action ensemble, TheExpendables 3. Sly alleged that there have only been “15 action heroes – real serious ones – in history”. Just whom he includes in this prestigious line-up is open to debate. Is Steven Seagal in there? And can Liam Neeson lay claim to this honour by dragging a bullet-ridden corpse to Stallone’s feet? Sly continued to say that there is something “intangible” about what makes an action hero. Seagal, however, believes that an action guy must be deadly in real life: “Is he a great fighter? A great warrior? No, let’s be honest”, he said about the trainer of Batman, Obi-Wan and…Orlando Bloom. Only someone as self-obsessed and deluded as Seagal could believe that what he does in the movies is akin to being a “warrior”. The stunt guys, crash mats, choreographers and directors might have something different to say. Maybe Seagal could kick your ass for real, but that’s hardly relevant; an action hero just needs to look like they can kick your ass in the movies. Neeson, despite his age, does. And Seagal, who has not so much as broke a sweat since 1988, having put on the pounds.
But it’s true; Liam Neeson is not a black belt in any form of martial arts; he does not know aikido and he did not set up a dojo in Japan. He boxed as a young man, but in all he is just a relatively big Irishman with occasional stubble. Is that fair on the Dolph Lundgren’s and Jean Claude Van Damme’s who spent gruelling hours toning their pecks and learning how to kick in the gym? No, but Neeson has something more and something the modern multiplex needs – something “intangible”. With a je ne sais quoi excellence, he bridges the gap between good actor and good action that most actors lack and Bruce Willis once provided in Die Hard. But unlike the professional Neeson, Willis soon resorted to high pay for tawdry work.
Maybe there is something else at play here. Steven Seagal has not been the front man of a major movie since 2001’s Exit Wounds, and only recently popped up for a cameo in your cinema thanks to Robert Rodriquez charitable casting in 2010’s Machete. In an upside down career trajectory, Liam Neeson, on the other hand, has only gotten more popular since his transition from young dramatic actor to elderly action hero. They are both 62 years old and the feeling that Seagal is feeling professionally bitter is a salient one. While Neeson is busy making financially successful thrillers that people are actually watching, Seagal has been stuck in home video purgatory for 15 years.
Snooty critics do their best to resist the Neeson charm because his current movies are not considered intellectual or artistically commendable enough. They scoff at the fact that the man from Schindler’s List – a film that was black and white for artistic reasons – has transitioned into the 21st centuries action man. But in this career conversion, Neeson is doing something that most actors cannot: providing consistently reliable Friday night viewing – an undervalued phenomenon. People go to a Liam Neeson film because it has Liam Neeson in it. Not since Schwarzenegger has there been this form of star power from an action hero whose output has been consistently pleasing to the mass market – Commando, Predator, Total Recall and Terminator 2 – all classics. But unlike Schwarzenegger, he does not look like a marble statue of the Gods; he has something even greater than the Austrian Oak– a human element. He is a relatable and fallible man who, as it happens, is well able to punch people in their throat. Just look at his recent performance in Non-Stop as air marshal Bill Marks: a man who suffers from depression and alcoholism after the death of his daughter, or his admirable turn in The Grey as a melancholic survivalist who shouts at God over the injustice of the world. Even in Taken, as the man who kills Europe, it is Bryan Mills divorcee, middle-aged loneliness and his fierce love of his daughter that drove the Neeson-fu. The scene in which he gives her a karaoke machine for her birthday is subtly heartbreaking. They attempted to make Arnold the Average Joe in Total Recall, but a human specimen like that(!) could never present the illusion of such a thing.
Seagal and his fellow 90’s stars are evidently suffering from a threat to their livelihood from advances in technology and audience tastes. Who needs a guy who knows all that fancy bollocks when Matt Damon can change the face of the contemporary action film? So this endangered species have banded together to combat the Neeson force. Their collective resistance is called The Expendables. This geri-action cast, looking to restore the heyday of the past careers, comes across as slightly tragic and horrendously nostalgic, especially when they all resort to deplorable self-parody. Neeson does not; he is the action man of today that happens to be older; he is not a parody of himself and he is the only action star without a tongue in cheek to be seen. We can take him seriously in his films while watching them but ridicule in good faith when finished with them. If he started winking to the audience, the whole thing shrinks and the enjoyment evaporates.
So it begs the question of which other dramatic actors can we Neesonise? Kevin Costner is set to appear in 3 Days to Kill (from the writer of Taken, Luc Besson) in an obvious attempt to battle-harden this ageing star. Travolta attempted it in From Paris With Love(also written by Luc Besson) but to shoddy results. Whoever comes next, Neeson inadvertently did it first and is unknowingly keeping the high-concept action film alive. So while Seagal is busy trying to get the second sequel to his career highpoint, Under Siege, of the ground, Neeson is the only actor busy doing a good job making the essential fun schlock the cinema needs. Stallone is right, there is a quality to an action movie star that is intangible. Neeson has it. We as the audience reek the benefits of it.