I Sez: Good to See Liam Neeson Getting Back to His Badass Roots
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 27, 2009
That would be…just fine
Let’s say you’re legendary action writer/director/producer Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Professional). You’ve got a new script about an ex-CIA man taking on a small cartel or some such in order to retrieve your kidnapped daughter. The supporting cast is laid out with an impressive array of That Guys and Girls (Maggie Grace of LOST, Xander Berkley of 24, Jon Gries of Napoleon Dynamite, Famke Janssen of everything). You’ve got a 45 million dollar budget and a month or two’s worth of incessant previews to prime your audience for the post-Oscar rush of trashy blockbusters. Who do you want to cast in the lead role? One man takes on a foreign country–well, that’s prime Schwarzeneggar or Stallone territory, isn’t it? But I guess those are kind of old, and one of ’em is maybe previously indisposed. OK, so what about Jason Statham, already a collaborator with Besson on the Transporter flicks? Well, maybe he’s a little tired, having pulled triple action duty with The Bank Job, Death Race and T3 last year. Time for Vin Diesel’s real comeback? Maybe that’s still a couple years too soon. Then you realize that the perfect candidate for the job has been right in front of your face all-along: 56-year-old Oscar nominee Liam Neeson.
All right, so maybe Neeson wouldn’t be most people’s first choice for a matinee badass, and as a result, the preview assault for Taken has been a little bit jarring. Nonetheless, if we think back to nearly two decades ago, there is a healthy precedent for this kind of Neeson action–Sam Raimi’s 1990 flawed masterpiece Darkman.
Now, Darkman has been somewhat lost in the shuffle of superhero flicks, and for obvious reasons–no basis in myth or comic books, a creepy, mildly unsettling tone (but in a more cartoonish, less credible way than current Dark Superhero Movies), and Frances McDormand as the love interest (18 years later, and filmmakers still haven’t learned–THIS IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA). It was popular, but not as popular as Batman, and it was culty, but not as culty as, uh, Hudson Hawk. However, the movie has much to commend itself–a classic cigar-and-scenery-chomping villian performance from L.A. Law‘s Larry Drake, some hilariously ridiculous makeup effects and script decisions, and a last-second, blink-and-you’ll-miss-what-all-your-friends-just-gasped-about cameo from Bruce Campbell.
But the movie would always sink or swim with Neeson’s performance as the titular anti-hero, and the future star of Schindler’s List and Rob Roy gives it the whole nine yards. Spending most of the movie without the benefit of a face, Neeson puts it all in the voice, muttering, cackling and screaming as he sees fit to make a lot of really, really stupid scenes (the ones in his lab, especially, where he achieves some of the most amazing scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century with a couple keyboards and some old warehouse scraps) at least sort of comical. But when called on to provide the movie’s action, he lays the hammer down, as in the scene above, when an insensitive carnival folk makes the tragic mistake of denying Darkman a pink elephant with which to woo McDormand, causing him to get his fingers fucked up. Besides that, he pushes a man into traffic (after he gives him the information he tortures him for, no less), he blows up a helicopter, and he drops a man from about 500 stories up on a building in construction. And though you sense that Neeson knew this wasn’t going to make him a household name, he doesn’t look like he’s just biding his time until he can star in prestigious biopics and Woody Allen flicks, either. (Though once again, the lack of face thing sort of helps…)
19 years after Darkman (and 13 years after the Neeson-less direct-to-video sequels, Darkman II: The Return of Darkman and Darkman III: Die, Darkman, Die), can Neeson still throw down with the best of them? Well, it’s already made $68 million worldwide even before its US release, so let’s just say there’s a reason why Luc Besson is Luc Besson, and you’re you.