Ten years ago this week, critical darling Liam Neeson saw his entire career transformed thanks to Taken, a gritty, and unassuming little action flick released during a sleepy January in 2009. Overnight, the man who spent his previous three decades on screen impressing high-minded audiences in movies like Michael Collins and Schindler’s List saw himself transformed into one of Hollywood’s most enduring action heroes.
And all because he brought the same dedication and intensity to Brian Mills that he applied to the entirety of his career.
Never Underestimate a Pissed Off Father (and Former CIA Spook)
For those people who have never had the pleasure of watching Liam Neeson cut through an army of Albanians like they were tissue paper, the set up for Taken goes like this:
Liam Neeson plays Brian Mills, a very accomplished government agent who gives up his murder-happy lifestyle to get more quality time with his estranged 17-year-old daughter. When she takes off on a summer trip to Paris and ends up as another poor girl circulated through the city’s underground sex trafficking ring, it’s up to Mills to dust off his “very particular set of skills” and tear down the City of Lights in a one-man crusade to get her back.
By the end of its opening weekend, Taken had recouped nearly all of its $25 million budget on its way to a $226 million worldwide gross. It also became the highest grossing starring role in Liam Neeson’s career (unless you count him as the star of The Phantom Menace, which no one does, because Darth Maul is the clear star of the film). In an instant, Taken became a juggernaut franchise and Liam Neeson went from the bad guy in Batman Begins to Liam-Fucking-Neeson, ass-kicker extraordinaire.
Sure, in the aftermath of Taken’s popularity, the series went … downhill. I mean, how many freaking times is Brian Mills’ daughter going to get kidnapped before she learns to stop traveling abroad? That said, the original film remains as effective and thrilling as it was ten years ago for one often-overlooked reason.
Why ‘Taken’ Still Works a Decade Later
Since Taken, Liam Neeson has suffered something of a backlash to his late-breaking action hero status. At this point, whenever Neeson comes out with a new picture, you can count on critics to say something to the effect of, “It’s just like Taken only on a train/on a plane/in the snow, etc.” (Cold Pursuit, in theaters now!)
That dismissive tone undermines both Taken’s legacy and Neeson’s undeniable talent and charisma. Even as Liam Neeson has transitioned away from the Oscar bait that defined his early career, the actor has not lost any of the dedication he brings to his job.
The reason Taken remains a modern action classic (and the reason Neeson keeps getting work) is that its star staunchly refuses to be an action hero. Yes, in Taken, Neeson karates his way through an absurd amount of henchmen. Yet, even at the film’s most brutal, Neeson remains dialed in as a desperate father terrified of losing the little girl he was too busy working to see grow up. While you were watching his gunplay, Neeson was putting on a bravura performance between set pieces. Just like the man shooting up the screen in Taken, Liam Neeson works in details, building a character as layered as he is kick-ass.
You can call Taken a sad turning point in Liam Neeson’s career all you want, but the fact remains that he didn’t appear to see a lick of difference between playing Alfred Kinsey and Brian Mills. While you’ve all been lamenting his career path over the last decade, Liam Neeson has remained a consummate professional and a damn fine actor. Only now his body count is a little bit higher.
You can stream Taken right now on HBO.