When stunt casting works, it’ll be for one of two reasons.
Most often, when an actor everybody knew was terrific finds new and unexpected ways to be awesome – think well-known woman Cate Blanchett playing confirmed man Bob Dylan in I’m Not There .
Every once in a while, though, an actor takes themselves off in a radical direction that pays off so grandly, we can only wonder what took them so long.
Since 2008, we’ve gotten used to Oskar Schindler’s move from saving lives to, well, taking them ( The A-Team , Unknown ), but it’s important to remember what a refreshing shock the sheer scale of Neeson’s makeover was.
Even while beating up Christian Bale in Batman Begins , he’d been more sage than bruiser, and in most of his other roles had been settling into middle age as a kind of lanky, celtic Morgan Freeman.
He was a reassuring voice of benign authority, a man who could give stubbing his toe Mandela-esque degrees of stoicism and dignity.
He played Aslan, for Christ’s sake.
Then something happened. The folks at Luc Besson’s Europacorp studio were mulling over who to cast in a quasi-remake of Commando they had rolling around.
Vin Diesel? Bruce Willis? Dolph Lundgren? They had the brawn, but where was the class? It’s a French company, after all.
Then someone, somehow, had a brainwave. What about l’acteur Irlandais Liam Neeson?
He’d had fight training for Star Wars: Episode I and Batman Begins .
He was big, and touted enough ‘Norn Iron’ grit to suggest he could lay the smack down.
Crucially, he was a seasoned enough pro to be able to sell the most preposterous nonsense as powerful drama – convenient when you’re purveying cheerfully retrograde tosh like Taken .
Think about it. Pierre Morel’s film could, without a great deal of tinkering, be a Steven Seagal vehicle.
Lord alone knows what Neeson saw in the part of a quasi-omnipotent CIA agent with politics that made Nick Griffin look like Tony Benn; what’s important, though, is that he took it and boy did he make the most of it.
A man previously best known for breaking down at the end of Schindler’s List was now throat-punching his way around the world, dispensing rough street justice as he chose, and doing it as if to the manor born.
There’s a reason why Schwarzenegger never played the Dane, and why Philip Seymour Hoffman is unlikely to fight a man for a parachute in mid-air.
It’s a profoundly different skillset, so when an actor crosses over and displays equal facility in both enigmatic stares and breaking necks, it’s a rare thing, and to be cherished.
Taken was the film where Liam Neeson somehow managed to straddle both camps; can you imagine Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Firth or Jeff Bridges doing it half as well?
And that’s why Taken is his greatest role. Or is it just me?
VOICES OF REASON
It was a relief to see Neeson break from the mentor mould and do something down ‘n’ dirty. But his greatest role? K-19: The Widowmaker . Clash Of The Accents...
Name his character. Go on. I want you to remember it. No? It’s Bryan Mills. A character name you can’t even remember is not more remarkable than Oskar Schindler. Aside from the vague Euro-racism, Taken is fun, but it’s a CV entry, not a career-definer.
By that criterion couldn’t the same be said for thesps Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren beating up thugs in Red ? Didn’t think so.
It’s not just you! Liam made a morally dodgy movie kind of sweet – who wouldn’t want him for a dad? Don’t agree about Daniel Day-Lewis though. He’d drink Neeson’s milkshake.