At the age of 56, Liam Neeson suddenly become the newest and hottest action star on the planet with the release of Taken. Originally released overseas in 2008, it would take almost a year before a North American release even happened, and the box office far exceeded expectations. In almost 15 years since rebooting his film career, Neeson continues to crank out traditional tough guy style action films on an annual, and sometimes bi annual basis. This list will rank 16 of Liam Neeson’s starring roles in action films from Taken to present.
16 – Blacklight (2022)
After seeing Blacklight on opening night, I remember telling people my opinion with one statement that perfectly sums up everything that’s wrong with this movie and everything that’s right about Liam Neeson. I immediately said “This is easily the worst Liam Neeson action movie ever made, but even the worst is still a Liam Neeson action movie. If you cast the wrong actor in the lead role, this is instantly straight to Blu Ray and forgettable, but Neeson makes it watchable by basically playing it exactly as you’d expect. Even the tagline seems like it was written for Neeson before there was ever a script. “They’re gonna need more men” could be slapped on any other poster on this list. The rest of the cast come across like they’re making a bad homemade movie. The conspiracy plot is barely thought out. But Neeson will always deliver as a tough guy, so it’s just barely worth it if you’re a fan.
15. Memory (2022)
So far 2022 hasn’t been the best year of Neeson, with both of his films released this year at the bottom of the list. What’s frustrating about Memory is that it has Martin Campbell directing, Guy Pearce and Monica Bellucci co-starring, a really solid premise, and yet somehow disappoints on almost all levels. I understand they’re following the source material of the original novel and original Belgian movie, and maybe those were executed better, but up until the last 20 minutes the story feels like a wasted opportunity. The idea of an assassin who’s losing his memory could really work in an action movie, but it’s barely used in the story. An early scene has Neeson seeing news of an assassination he chose not to commit, only to wonder if he had done it and not remembered. Sadly that’s just a brief moment of confusion when you could have built an entire plot around that one scene. The movie does get it right for the climax when it finally embraces the memory loss concept, and it’s done in a way that isn’t predictable. It’s just a shame that this much talent couldn’t deliver a more captivating story.
14 – Taken 2 (2012)
I doubt anyone out there views the Taken sequels as being necessary viewing. There’s a reason why some movies are best left as stand alone successes. Even Neeson and screenwriters Besson and Kamen admitted they never would have made a sequel to Taken if the first hadn’t been such a massive hit. Just because it’s an unnecessary sequel doesn’t mean it’s all bad. There is one fanastic sequence on the rooftop where Neeson talks his daughter through using grenades so he can find her location. That one sequence may be better than anything in the first movie. Other than that, it’s a pretty just more of the same. Olivier Megaton struggles in the same way directing this as he did with The Transporter 3. The action and story is adequate without being memorable. Still if you’re interested in some cheap fun, it’s worth a watch as long as expectations are low.
13 – Taken 3 (2014)
Many people would rank Taken 3 lower than part 2, but what I appreciate slightly more is that it wasn’t just retreading a concept that had already been done twice before. There are enough fresh ideas in Taken 3 to make it stand out a little more than the first sequel. It starts with a major plot twist in the first act that takes the story in a different direction than you would expect in a Taken movie. This time it’s almost more like The Fugitive as a man on the run, and you have Forrest Whitaker and Dougray Scott added to the mix as antagonists. Nothing about Taken 3 stands out as being special, but it’s a fun finale for the series with a decent story. Even though it’s easy to criticize the Taken sequels, there is a good reason why all 3 were such massive hits, and it’s not just Liam Neeson’s star power as an action hero. The Bryan Mills character Besson and Kamen created stands the test of time more than the films themself. He’s the prototype for the modern day elder action hero, and despite so many imitations that have been done since, there is something special about the friendly loving father flipping a switch and turning into the cold and emotionless killing machine.
11 – Run All Night (2015)
I have mixed feelings on Run All Night. It’s great to see Neeson playing a shadier anti-hero character for a change. The mob story is something different for Neeson, and you have a solid supporting cast with Ed Harris, Common, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent Donofrio all doing what they can. Jaume Collet-Serra is Neeson’s most frequent collaborator as this was his 3rd film in a row with Neeson. His directing style is very high energy, which unfortunately just doesn’t work as well with this story. Run All Night is a little like an old school 80s mob film trapped inside a 2015 action film on speed. As much as I love Collet-Serra’s films, this is the one that he just didn’t seem suited for. There is still a lot to enjoy in Run All Night. It just never lives up to its potential due to the execution.
11 – Honest Thief (2020)
If you want a generic copy and paste Liam Neeson action movie that probably could have been written by a bot based on every Liam Neeson action movie that came before it, this is the movie for you. Believe it or not, I actually mean that as a compliment. The plot of Honest Thief could have very well been written by a bot, as it’s really nothing more than a rehash of a half a dozen other Neeson movies, but it plays more like a greatest hits than a cheap knock off. As simple and cliche as this movie is, it’s actually a whole lot of fun to watch. Mark Williams, who also directed Blacklight 2 years later starring Neeson, succeeds in pulling together the action scenes and character development in a way I wish he’d done with Blacklight. Honest Thief came out in the middle of the pandemic as movie theaters were barely starting to open again. During the fall of 2020 I’m sure seeing anything on the big screen again was going to feel special, I was surpised that watching this movie again a year later on Netflix that it was still enjoyable. Honest Thief may be cheap entertainment, but it’s enjoyably cheap entertainment.
10 – The A-Team (2010)
As far as movie adaptations of TV shows go, The A-Team should be the prototype of how to do it right. Obviously this isn’t at the level of Mission: Impossible, but in all fairness neither was the TV show in the same league. The A-Team movie is over the top, cheesy, and basically a live action cartoon, but in all fairness the TV show would be described the same way. This is exactly what you’d expect a big screen A-Team movie to be like had it been made in the 80s with an unlimited budget. I debated whether or not to include this movie on the list as it’s the only one where Neeson isn’t the main star. He shares equal screen time and importance to the rest of the team played by Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley and Rampage Jackson. One of the reasons I couldn’t keep The A-Team off the list was because this was the first major movie Liam Neeson signed onto after the success of Taken, and he is clearly fully embracing his status as an old school action hero. While all members of the team shine, I can’t ignore the scene stealing performance from Patrick Wilson as the villain. Joe Carnahan has made a career on making quality action films, but I doubt he ever had more fun than directing a tank parachuting out of a plane. There are action sequences in this movie that make the Fast and Furious series look subtle, but that’s what’s so enjoyable. The A-Team movie, just like the TV series before it, is 100% aware it’s ridiculous. Every once and a while it’s refreshing to have an action movie forget logic at the door and just deliver an amusement park ride on the big screen.
9 – The Commuter (2018)
The Commuter is the 4th movie Jaume Collet-Serra directed starring Liam Neeson, and coming 3 years after their last pairing Run All Night, both were clearly more inspired to produce something unique and entertaining. While on the surface The Commuter seems like nothing more than Non-Stop on a train, the story it plays out as its own unique story with completely different twists. The fight scene with the guitar player is not only the show stopping sequence of the movie, but maybe my favourite Neeson fight scene of any movie on this list. The supporting cast is perhaps the strongest of any on this list, particularly thanks to Vera Farmiga as the mysterious passenger that recuits/traps Neeson’s character into potentially committing a murder on the train. My only disappointment is The Commuter takes the premise and delivers it at about a 7.5 or an 8 when it could have gone balls to the walls to a 10. Had it not been for a climax that gets a little predictable and formulaic, this could easily have been a top 5 movie.
8 – Unknown (2011)
Unknown in 2011 that was considered as a spiritual follow up to Taken. It was Neeson’s first solo action movie since Taken, and it was about an older man fighting bad guys while visiting Europe. That’s where the similarities end. Unknown was Neeson’s first of four times working with director Jaume Collet-Serra, and it was actually one of the more original action movies of its era. The story of a man going into a coma and waking up to discover nobody, including his wife, knows or is willing to acknowledge his existence is enough for this movie to stand on it’s own. The fact is you could take all of the action out of Unknown and it could rest on the plot itself to make for a compelling viewing. Even though it was a big hit on release, Unknown has sort of slipped into obscurity in the years since, but it still holds up more than 10 years later. The fact that a TV series is currently in development with Neeson himself co-producing is proof there’s a lot more to this story than your typical 2000s action movie.
7 – The Marksman (2021)
Thanks to lower budgets, simple premises, a consistent formula and reliable star power, Liam Neeson to a certain degree became a box office king during the pandemic. For close to a year and a half very few movies were given wide release, few theaters remained open, and fewer people were willing to pay to go out in public to see something on the big screen. Yet in 2020 and 2021 it seemed every Neeson action movie got a wide release.This definitely helped push movies like Honest Thief and The Marksman more into the mainstream than they would have otherwise gotten if released 2 years earlier. While many of Neeson’s bigger films have a very modern and flashier style to them, I have a real soft spot for movies like The Marksman that embrace an old school action style. This is a simple story of your average guy on the run protecting a child from bad guys. I couldn’t help but think while I watching it that this would have easily fit into Clint Eastwood’s filmography during the 80s or early 90s. Little did I know that the direct Robert Lorenz made his career working almost exclusively as a producer for Clint Eastwood. The child actor is tolerable, the chemistry between Neeson and the kid is strong, and the conflict is strong all the way through the climax. While Honest Thief was a pleasant surprise during a time where new movies were scarce, The Marksman would have been a pleasant surprise if released at any point in the last 40 years.
6 – The Ice Road (2021)
While Honest Thief, The Marksman and Blacklight all got theatrical releases during the pandemic, unfortunately the timing was just wrong for The Ice Road as they had to settle for a Netflix and VOD release instead. It’s sad because of all those movie, this is the biggest and most wonderfully over the top that would have been a blast to see on a big screen. While not quite at A-Team level of ridiculousness, The Ice Road is clearly intending to be a traditional brainless blockbuster. I almost feel like every compliment I give this movie needs to be preceded by “I know its brainless, but”. So for the record, I know it’s brainless, but the story between Neeson and his brother has a good amount of heart to it. I know it’s brainless, but the action scenes at times literally had me on the edge of my seat. Jonathan Hensleigh, who started a screenwriter on everything from Young Indiana Jones to the Die Hard series to Armageddon clearly knows how to write a blockbuster. He was also the director of the very underrated 2004 Punisher film, which I always believed was a perfect homage to the classic revenge movies of the 70s. Here in the Ice Road Hensleigh has made a perfect homage to the action movies of the 80s. Minus a few VFX shots, you could easily have made this movie almost shot for shot in the mid 80s and had it star Sylvester Stallone. So for the record, I know The Ice Road is brainless, but I absolutely love every minute of it.
5 – Cold Pursuit (2019)
I remember the long pre-release build up to Cold Pursuit almost as well as the movie itself. Long before there was even a trailer this movie had a bit of a Snakes on a Plane type buzz. They basically announced it with a synopsis along the lines of “Liam Neeson gets revenge driving a snow plow”. The original title was Hard Powder. Even the teaser poster above of a car being impaled by a tree gave the impression this would be an over the top violent blast. Of course Cold Pursuit is actually a fairly straight revenge thriller, that despite having elements of humor, is essentially a dark and dramatic story where a grieving father just happens to drive a snow plow. The fact that Cold Pursuit ended up so different from what many were expecting, it’s in no way a disappointment. This is one of the more effective Liam Neeson revenge stories in terms of drama, and easily one of his strongest performances. At one point Neeson had even announced this would be his last action movie. I like to think the positive reaction to Cold Pursuit gave him the motivation to continue in the geri-action genre he helped create.
4 – Taken (2008)
Taken was not only the movie that changed the direction of Liam Neeson’s career, but it changed the direction of action movies as a whole. It’s not necessarily that anything about Taken was revolutionary, more that it combined many elements that had worked in the past and brought the traditional revenge thriller to a new generation. Luc Besson is the kind of french action films, and he spent the better part of this decade writing and producing films such as The Transporter trilogy and District B13 that combined the french style and locations for a Hollywood audience. I doubt there were any expectations that Taken would become anything more than a moderately successful film along the lines of The Transporter. In fact the North American release came a full year after it was released overseas. Little did anyone know there was an audience that was dying to see 56 year old Liam Neeson brutalize criminals half his age with his bare hands. Prior to this the middle aged action stars of the past such as Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and others were criticized for doing action at their age. What nobody could have predicted was Neeson becoming an action star at his age would lead to a huge revival of traditional action and revenge films. Within a few years we’d have The Expendables, Jack Reacher, Equalizer and John Wick, all starring aging action heroes of the past reviving their career for a new audience. Outside of the influence Taken had on the genre, its a surprisingly simple movie that could have easily gone unnoticed. Luckily it was the right movie at the right time. The story and action actually hold up much better than I would have expected it to almost 15 years later.
3 – A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
If I had to pick one underrated Liam Neeson movie that’s really deserves more attention it would be A Walk Among the Tombstones. While it still features solid action sequences, this is one movie that’s more memorable for the story than anything else. At the time this was made Scott Frank was one of the best screenwriters working in the business, having written Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Minority Report. Since then he’s gone on to make some of the strongest TV series ever made with Godless and The Queen’s Gambit. He knows crime dramas as well as anyone, and manages to make A Walk Among the Tombstones gritty without being dark or depressing. If Taken is the franchise that shouldn’t have ever gone past the first film, A Walk Among the Tombstones is the franchise that should have existed but never happened. There’s so much that could have been done with the Scudder character going forward as this was only based on one of close to 20 novels written over several decades. Sadly this movie never caught on to the extent of many of Liam Neeson’s other movies, so chances are a sequel will never happen, but if enough people give this movie a first (or even second look) nothing would make me happier than to see this series continue.
2 – The Grey (2012)
After Joe Carnahan and Liam Neeson teamed up on The A-Team they would follow it up with The Grey, a movie so different you’d never think it was made by the same director. Not your typical Liam Neeson beats up bad guys movie. This one is more Liam Neeson beats up hungry wolves in the arctic. To be honest this is about 80% a survival story of a plane crash, and some really terrifying man vs wolf scenes thrown in. Even summing it up as as survival or man vs beast story doesn’t do The Grey justice. There’s a lot more depth and emotion than any of film on this list. This was still early in Neeson’s action career, and it’s more or less the perfect movie to combine the excitement for Neeson’s newer action fans and the emotional drama for Neeson’s older fans. To say The Grey looks spectacular is under selling it. It’s visually breathtaking and haunting to look at for every frame. The subtly of Neeson’s character’s arc is so perfectly and subtly paid off in the final scene that I still go back and watch that one scene on its own years later.
1 – Non-Stop (2014)
Stories like Non-Stop have been told so many times it’s near impossible to make an action movie on an airplane movie fresh in any way. What sets Non-Stop apart from so many others like Executive Decision, Air Force One or Passenger 57 is how much emphasis is put on the whodunnit aspect of the story. This is like an Agatha Christie story cosplaying as a Liam Neeson action movie. There’s always the risk with a whodunnit that by the time you get to the “Who” twist it will be a letdown, but Non-Stop sets up every character in the movie so well that nobody could be revealed as the villain and leave you questioning the logic. This is helped by having so many great actors on the plane to give these characters with limited screen time so much personality. Julianne Moore, Nate Parker, Corey Hawkins, Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyongo, Anson Mount all help make this so much better than it ever could have been in the script. The other thing that makes Non-Stop stand out is the visual style and energy that Jaume Collet-Serra gives it. So much of the communication is done via text, which is really tricky to pull off on scree, but the way it’s handled here is maybe more exciting than if you had some distorted voice over the phone. Aside from a few bathroom fight scenes at the beginning, there’s next to no traditional action until it gets close to the end. And this is still more exciting than others on the list filled with endless hand to hand combat and chase scenes. Even when you include the bathroom fight scenes or the plane crash climax, I would say I still walk away with the most enjoyment out of scenes like the of circling the passengers on the monitor when looking for suspects, or the phone virus to turn on the ringer. There isn’t a single boring second of Non-Stop, and it never gets old for me on a rewatch. Typically a movie that’s all about a reveal and twist will diminish once you know how it ends, but I get just as much enjoyment out of this movie on a 5th or 6th viewing as I did the first time around. While Non-Stop isn’t necessarily a forgotten movie and has a good reputation still today, I feel it can still be classified as underrated. Non-Stop might be the best action movie on a large vehicle film since Speed. That’s a genre that may get it’s own list at some point in the future.