The Recurring Elements of Every Liam Neeson Action Movie

By  · Published on March 12th, 2015

Warner Bros.

This weekend, we’re getting yet another Liam Neeson efficiently dispatches nameless thugs in the quest to save a loved one action film. The latest, Run All Night, is the eighth in as many years. And in those eight years, the idea of Neeson as an action hero has gone from refreshingly unique to no different from any other AARP subscriber who can still get paid to crunch tracheas on camera- Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, et al.

While the future looks just fine for Neeson- his action movies still rake in substantial dough and usually-better-than-average reviews- movie culture in general has been hit with a wave of Liam Neeson Fatigue. Whether you like his particular brand of geriaction or you don’t (also, “geriaction” is a thing now), it seems people can only talk about the new Neeson flick in the context of all those old Neeson flicks. It’s good, just like all the others. It’s mediocre, just like the others.

I’m a fan of Neeson’s particular brand of movie carnage. It’s fun, doesn’t require a lot of commitment and is far more Jack Reacher-like than the actual Jack Reacher movie we got a few years back. Still, I can admit to feeling a little fatigue myself. But why? Why the fatigue? Why does every Neeson movie feel so similar? Well, after careful examination, here’s what’s up: boil any Neeson actioner down to its most basic parts, and you’ll end up with the same set of parts, every time.

Liam Neeson’s Always The Same Character

In any Liam Neeson action movie (and for the record, those movies are: Taken, Unknown, The Grey, Taken 2, Non-Stop, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Taken 3, Run All Night), Neeson will be playing a slight variation on the same character. There’s the obvious stuff- he’s a soft-spoken badass with a very specific set of skills, and those skills involve killing. But there are other, major, defining traits.

First, he’s a doting family man. If the gag is that Liam Neeson’s constantly losing new family members to kidnappers, he’s got to have family members in the first place, right? So in the Taken series, he’s got a wife and daughter; in Unknown and The Grey, just a wife; in Run All Night, just a son. Even when Neeson doesn’t have a family, he’ll end up with some kind of surrogate loved one to fill in the blanks. In Tombstones’ case, it’s a homeless teenager who could really use a father figure.

The second trait of any Liam Neeson hero is that he’s always one day from retirement… or whatever “retirement” might be in the context of each movie. The point is, Neeson’s character is right on the cusp of a very big lifestyle change. In Taken, he’s a CIA spook who just retired; in Unknown an assassin who just amnesia’d himself into not being an assassin anymore; in The Grey he’s on the verge of suicide; in Non-Stop and Tombstones he’s a former cop whose drinking problem cost him the job (although in Tombstones, the alcohol-related firing wasn’t that recent). In the promo materials for Run All Night, Neeson’s character is described as an “aging hitman.” I can only assume that the night everybody’s running from (or running… during, I guess) is just two days away from Neeson’s hitman retirement party.

The point being, when the kidnapping/murder/terrorist attack rears its head, it gives Neeson’s character a Michael Corleone moment. Boom! Instant inner conflict. Also, I’d like to think that part of it is Neeson’s age. At 62, we’d just sort of assume he’s about to retire from whatever it is he’s doing anyway.

Liam Neeson’s Always On a Rescue Mission

Like I said above, if your Neeson has a family, that Neeson’s going to have to protect it from certain doom. Which is the case for every Liam Neeson action movie ever made. Even if he’s not protecting his family every time- instead, maybe he’s trying to save an airplane’s worth of passengers from fireball death, or keeping an oil drilling team from being gnawed at by wolves. Whatever the situation, Neeson’s a protector. And he will protect. Even if the script has to take some roundabout ways to get there. Unknown, for example, has Neeson’s character suffer a devastating car wreck, slip into a coma, the wake up with severe memory loss, days later. As soon as he’s conscious? I have to find my wife, my wife needs me, I must rescue her. Even though she totally had a hotel room the whole time.

Liam Neeson’s Always More Important Than the Director

Liam Neeson action flicks are not director-driven in the slightest. They’re vehicles, and a vehicle’s job is to get out of the way and be a generic canvas for the star to do his thing. In Neeson’s case, knifehand-striking people (also, wolves) in the throat. Which is why nearly every Neeson action flick has a similar breed of director. Pierre Morel, Jaume Collet-Serra, Olivier Megaton, Scott Frank. None of them are guys you’ve ever heard of, (probably) but they’re all roughly in the same class with one or two wide release Hollywood action films under their belt. Directors who can be trusted to make Neeson look cool, but not go overboard with the auteur stuff.

That’s also why Neeson movies don’t have all-star casts (Run All Night, with Ed Harris, Common and Joel Kinnaman, is the closest you’ll get). Maybe one other noteworthy name in there; a Julianne Moore or a Forest Whitaker, but little else. It also explains why the Taken movies, despite having a considerable dose of Luc Besson in them, don’t feel particularly Luc Besson-y. And why Neeson was “convinced [the first Taken] was straight to video” (in the same interview, Neeson also sums up Taken better than any critic ever could- “There’s a guy determined to find his daughter. ‘Oh yeah, look, he finds her. And he kills all these guys’”).

And obviously, Joe Carnahan is exempt from this category, because A), Joe Carnahan’s pretty great and B), because The Grey has a little more complexity to it than your average Neeson kill-fest.

Liam Neeson’s Always Getting Into the Same Fights

In line with the whole non-auteur director thing, the fight scenes in Liam Neeson action movies are more or less interchangeable. They’re usually in very close quarters (though not always), and usually composed of a lot of quick cuts that almost resemble a handheld shaky-cam, but aren’t actually shaky-cam unless you happen to be watching from a massage chair. But more importantly, it’s how Neeson navigates these multi-man brawls that’s so similar. There’s a general fighting style that carries through every single Neeson pic (and really makes the case for all these Neeson characters just being the same dude). It’s superhuman yet scrappy; fictional Liam Neeson is obviously a martial arts genius, but he’s also impatient and takes a lot of shortcuts. Eyes, groins, necks (punching someone in the neck is as much a Neesonism as losing a family member to kidnappers), grabbing something off the ground and beating a guy with it- whatever ends a fight as quickly and brutally as possible.

Also, there’s a general violence level that’s accepted through all Liam Neeson action films. It’s somewhere between a hard PG-13 and a soft R- the R-rated ones don’t go for anything too stomach-churning (a lot of gunshots, maybe a stabbing once in a while for variety) while the PG-13s are more than welcome to, oh, jab a shard of glass into a man’s carotid artery.

Bonus Round: Liam Neeson’s Always Threatening People Over the Phone

Perhaps not as crucial to a film as story, characters or fight choreography, but crucial nonetheless. Liam Neeson is always threatening people- graphically, yet at a very reasonable volume- through a cell phone. It’s his thing. That cell phone speech from Taken is iconic, and it may end up being the most recognizable moment of his entire career. The proof, of course, is that almost every single Neeson movie post-Taken has included a riff on that same speech. Sometimes it’s just another Neeson, muttering a different paragraph of threats into a different phone. Sometimes there’s a spark of creativity involved, like how Non-Stop’s threats were communicated via text message. And sometimes you get Taken 2, where Neeson uses a phone call to tell his daughter that this time, “your mother and I… are gonna be Taken” ‘90s-era Simpsons couldn’t do a better Taken parody than that moment right there.

Like Arnold Schwarzenegger spent decades repeating “I’ll be back” in films that were definitely not The Terminator, you can bet Liam Neeson is going to be describing people’s deaths via phone call for the rest of his moviemaking career. And every time, that movie will feel just a little bit more like Taken.

Is every Liam Neeson movie more or less the same film, give or take a few pieces of window dressing? Sure. Should that stop you from seeing Run All Night this weekend and enjoying it just as much as Takens 1–19? Not in the slightest. Liam Neeson action movies might be repetitive, but they’re not bad movies, and if Neeson can keep his cookie-cutter operating at this level of quality for eight years straight, more power to him.