You know an “Old Man Liam Neeson Action Film” when you see one. It’s a specific subgenre of films that erupted 12 years ago with the massive success of Taken. They don’t have much of a template to give them away, but that doesn’t mean they’re hard to spot. Obviously, they all star Liam Neeson. Typically, he spends a lot of time on the phone. But not always! He’s usually a former badass of some kind. But not always! Someone important to him is either dead or in danger. But not always! He has uncool values meant to appeal to very old people. But not always!
I will say this: an Old Man Liam Neeson Action Film is not just a film where Liam Neeson is old and kicks ass. If it were, The Grey would be number one on the list and we could all go home. The Grey is not on this list because it is simply not an Old Man Liam Neeson Action Film. It’s too good for that. A proper Old Man Liam Neeson Action Film tends to be a bit trashier, a bit sillier, and significantly less responsible.
This is a reckoning of a specific type of Liam Neeson film, of which a new one – Honest Thief – recently hit theaters. Where does it rank? You’ll have to scroll to find out (spoiler: you won’t have to scroll far).
10. Taken 2
This is as bad as they get. Olivier Megaton’s attempt to get more money out of Liam Neeson’s already iconic Bryan Mills character leads to a plot in which both Bryan and his wife get kidnapped and must be saved by Kim, his kidnapped daughter from the first film. This involves a wildly ridiculous scene where she throws grenades all over Istanbul in an attempt to locate Neeson who is… you know what? Don’t worry about it. This is a bad film, too silly to even offer any goofball charm.
Definitive Old Man Neeson moment: Okay, I can’t let it go. She throws grenades while on the phone with Neeson, who triangulates his own location through the blast sounds. You feel sorry for your brain while watching it.
9. Honest Thief
Honest Thief is currently in theaters, if there are operating theaters near you. I implore you: do not risk getting Covid-19 over Honest Thief. No movie is worth getting sick for, but Honest Thief is really not worth getting sick for. The problem is right there in the title. Neeson’s character is just too aw shucks good to feel believable as any kind of tough guy. Furthermore, his main nemesis, Jai Courtney, is far too bland and weak to offer any interesting opposition. This one is a waste, one that feels more suitable for television than the big screen.
Definitive Old Man Neeson moment: While he does have some patented threatening cell phone conversations, Honest Thief works best when keeping things simple, as when Neeson plainly tells Courtney: “Agent Nivens… I’m coming for you.”
Unknown was the first – and least – of Neeson’s legendary collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra. While the hallmarks of their better films are here – basically Neeson as the central figure in a low-grade mystery movie – the template is not yet perfected. For starters, Neeson isn’t quite action-y enough yet. The film emphasizes the mystery a bit too much, which would maybe be fine if the outcome made any sense.
Definitive Old Man Neeson moment: Neeson tells a guy “I didn’t forget everything” before beating him to a pulp.
7. Taken 3
Well, Taken 3 is at least better than Taken 2. So that’s an improvement. No one gets taken in this one, really. Instead, Bryan Mills needs to clear his own name for the death of his ex-wife – who was maybe kind-of sort-of going to finally get back together with him. Forest Whitaker gives the film a minor pulse, but it’s mostly a bland conclusion to the Bryan Mills saga.
Definitive Old Man Neeson moment: Look, it’s pretty wild and irresponsible to see your movie’s hero waterboard a guy. Successfully, I might add.
6. The Commuter
It’s all good stuff from here on out. The Commuter has all the ingredients for great Old Man Neeson action: he’s an ex-cop who modestly rides a train to work every day and gets embroiled in a close-quarter conspiracy that makes gloriously little sense. Its only real fault is the blatant similarity to the superior Non-Stop. Nevertheless, The Commuter is hard to dislike. You won’t remember much of it, but that’s hardly the point.
Definitive Old Man Neeson moment: Instead of winning a fight against villain Patrick Wilson, Neeson removes his mumbo-jumbo thermal tracking device and lets police snipers accidentally take him out. But hey, taking the train every day is pretty Old Man Neeson as well.
5. A Walk Among the Tombstones
A Walk Among the Tombstones diverts from the rest of this list by being an actually gritty and violent crime drama. Old Man Liam Neeson is still very much Old Man Liam Neeson, but this time he’s up against some real scumbags, and the film doesn’t hold back from its R-rating. It’s more substantial than many other films on this list, but it’s also not as fun.
Definitive Old Man Neeson moment: The film opens with a drunken, bearded Neeson casually taking out three would-be robbers in broad daylight. It’s all pretty badass until we later learn of one his stray bullets killed a young child.
4. Run All Night
Another R-rated outlier, Run All Night also distinguishes itself among the Neeson/Collet-Serra collaborations. The rating is part of it, but there’s also no real mystery here and the film is more of an ensemble effort than usual. Run All Night works as a crime drama, a family drama, and a sad buddy story all in one. It’s not a silly as most Old Man Liam Neeson action films, but it’s worth it for the interplay we get between Neeson and heavy-hitter Ed Harris.
Definitive Old Man Neeson moment: We love these movies for scenes where Neeson threatens people over the phone. Here he does his threatening face to face with Ed Harris and he feels more small than threatening, and it’s just stupendous in terms of excitement and tough guy drama.
Here’s where it all began. The good news is, it all still works pretty well. Bryan Mills would not translate to sequels, but his surprising effectiveness as a person with a very particular set of skills still manages to excite all these years later. No, it’s not the best Old Man Liam Neeson Action Film, but it is a solid classic that ranks very high on the list for a reason.
Definitive Old Man Neeson moment: Do we even have to say it? That phone scene call defined this guy’s entire later career.
Whatever magic Jaume Collet-Serra has over Liam Neeson’s action persona hit its apex in this ridiculous film in which Neeson must solve a conspiracy while stuck on an airplane. It’s a perfect low-grade thriller, its mystery so forgettable you can watch it every couple of years as though for the first time. It’s also old enough that its cast of nobodies have all become famous in their own right. Taken invented the Old Man Liam Neeson Action Film. Non-Stop perfected it.
Definitive Old Man Neeson moment: Due to airplane physics I won’t go into, Neeson grabs a floating gun and tags Scoot McNairy in the head while flying through the air. Like the rest of this film, it is completely over the top and awesome.
1. Cold Pursuit
Cold Pursuit is the English-language remake of the Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance. It’s remarkable how much this film adheres to the Old Man Liam Neeson Action Film aesthetic without changing all that much from the original. The plot is simple: Neeson is a snowplow operator who takes out a crime syndicate that murdered his son. The difference here is the brilliant direction and witty, dark comedy that runs through the film. This may look like your normal Old Man Liam Neeson Action Film, but it is something way, way better than that.
Definitive Old Man Neeson moment: The very last shot of the film. I can’t spoil it, but you’ll know when you see it.
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