Liam Neeson, the senior avenger

Since the death of his wife in 2009, the Irish actor has focused on action thrillers based on the premise “you don’t know who you’re messing with”, such as his latest release: ‘In the Land of Saints and Sinners’

Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson in a scene from 'In the Land of Saints and Sinners.'
Gregorio Belinchón

In 2007, Liam Neeson received a curious proposal, an action script co-written by Luc Besson that Jeff Bridges had rejected. After a first reading, it sounded like a “straight to DVD” movie. But the project involved learning karate and moving to Paris for four months, and Neeson fancied both. The fact that Taken became a worldwide success and that, after the death of his wife in 2009, Neeson stopped taking dramatic parts to focus on high-action roles are two twists of fate that no one could have foreseen.

But that’s happened, and at this stage of his career, the Northern Irishman has become the talisman of films based on the premise “you don’t know who you’re messing with,” such as his latest release, In the Land of Saints and sinners. Since that fateful 2009, the actor has starred in movie after movie (up to 44): he is the king of the elderly action hero. Or, as critics may say, the leader of the dad movies. “I think the public likes to see people who seem real doing action, who suffer and get tired,” the actor told EL PAÍS in 2015 while promoting Run All Night.

Neeson’s career can be divided into Picasso-style stages. His current stage began after his wife Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident. He was meant to star in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and had been working on the project for four years... But when he read the script months after his wife’s death, he told Spielberg that he didn’t have the strength to do it. In the end, he was replaced by Daniel Day-Lewis. “I survived by running away some. Running away to work. Listen, I know how old I am and that I’m just a shoulder injury from losing roles like the one in Taken. So I stay with the training, I stay with the work,” he told Esquire. “That’s the weird thing about grief. You can’t prepare for it.”

That’s why he threw himself into the maelstrom of very physical films. He felt more comfortable in Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, the new installment of The Chronicles of Narnia, and in thrillers that turned him into a brand: Unknown, The Grey, Taken 2, Cold Pursuit, The Marksman, Blacklight, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Run All Night... In the genre “Neeson hits and shoots things,” there are two subgenres: “You have messed with my family” and “You don’t know who you’re messing with.” In the Land of Saints and Sinners belongs to the former.

The movie is set in 1974 and follows Finbar Murphy, who lives a secluded life in a beautiful, almost idyllic, Irish village. When asked what he really does for a living, he responds curtly: “You don’t want to know.” In the Lands of Saints and Sinners is a 20th century western. Murphy (Liam Neeson, who else) is the local bad guy (who “wants to do good through evil,” according to the trailer), who protects his people disguised as a good guy. But the arrival of villains — in this case a particularly cruel IRA commando led by a woman eager for revenge — destroys the peaceful village and forces each character to choose a side. One such character is the local police officer, Murphy’s best friend, who has no inkling at all about the protagonist’s murderous coldness. He is played by one of Neeson’s old friends in real life, Ciarán Hinds.

Neeson has made a living from acting for almost half a century. The Irishman started in theater and boxing (hence the broken nose), and did better in the former. While starring in the 1980 stage production Of Mice and Men, he was discovered by director John Boorman, who cast him in Excalibur. Neeson made the leap to cinema in style. Along the way, he began a romantic relationship with actress Helen Mirren, who was already a star. He would later thank her for taking a 20-year-old Irishman and polishing him up, just like Pygmalion.

Between 1982 and 1986, he entered his second professional stage. He worked nonstop, with the aim of succeeding in Hollywood. That’s how he ended up starring in The Mission and the fifth installment of the Harry Callahan detective saga: The Dead Pool. He also led thrillers such as Under Suspicion and Ruby Cairo, and worked with prestigious directors such as Woody Allen in Husbands and Wives and Sam Raimi in Darkman.

But Neeson did not forget his love of the stage. And this is when he embarks on another new stage. In 1993, Neeson made his Broadway debut as Mat Burke in Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, starring alongside Natasha Richardson. That role earned him the nickname “a sequoia of sex,” a tag given to him by a critic at The New Yorker. It also led to his marriage to Richardson; his first nomination for a Tony Award and his leading role in Schindler’s List.

Steven Spielberg was struggling to decide which actor would play Oskar Schindler: Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson? One day he went to see Anna Christie, and at the end of the performance he went to Neeson’s dressing room to chat with the actor: he found his Oskar. Two years ago, in an interview at the San Sebastián festival in Spain, Neeson told EL PAÍS: “At first I thought we were making a small film. Then the film was released and took on a life of its own. And that had an effect, as if I entered another division in which they offered me more leading roles, which was fantastic.”

At this stage, Neeson starred in major productions, largely appearing in period movies such as Michael Collins, Rob Roy and Les Misérables. At the age of 45, he began to play mentors and teachers in films such as Batman, Star Wars, Kingdom of Heaven and Gangs of New York. And, presciently, he also played a widower worried about his stepson’s emotional stability in Love Actually (2003).

That changed with the success of Taken and March 16, 2009, the night Richardson called him from the Mont-Tremblant ski resort near Montreal. She had fallen in the middle of a beginner ski lesson, but was not seriously injured, only her head hurt. It was the last conversation they had. The next day she fell into a coma, and when Neeson arrived at the hospital from a shoot in Toronto, she was brain-dead. He decided to move his wife to New York, so that family and friends could say goodbye. After being off life support, she died on March 18.

In the movies following Richardson’s death, Neeson’s talent has shone in productions such as A Monster Calls, by Juan Antonio Bayona, his self-parody in the TV series Atlanta and in some scenes in Made in Italy, a messy but healing drama, where the actor and his eldest son, Micheál Richardson, play a father and a son with a distant relationship, who must renovate a house in Italy that they have inherited after the mother dies in a car accident.

Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson, at the London premiere of 'Marlowe' in March 2023.Karwai Tang (WireImage)

Now Neeson’s career has taken another turn. The actor is filming Law of Toughness, the reboot of the comedy film saga The Naked Gun, in which he plays the clumsy cop Frank Drebin Jr. “I like the job of acting. I like to see a sequence of mine and think: ‘That turned out well, that worked.’” he told EL PAÍS. “I’ve had a good life.”

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