For years now, I’ve wondered why Liam Neeson does all those ridiculous action movies. I think more people have seen him punching people or battling wolves or whatever than have seen him saving Jews, which is no little depressing to me. For a long time, I’ve assumed that it’s a reaction to his wife’s untimely death—but Natasha Richardson died in 2009, and Taken was in 2008. Recent unfortunate revelations have suggested to me instead that there is a deep core of anger in Neeson, and this is how he’s currently releasing it. And you have to admit it’s a healthier release for everyone?
Neeson grew up Catholic in Northern Ireland in the ’50s and ’60s. He managed to remain fairly apolitical until Bloody Sunday in 1972, though he has also said he felt like a second-class citizen compared to Protestants. (Frankly, it sounds to me as though he still hasn’t really figured out what he believes about a lot of things.) He started acting in 1976. He started doing both movies and TV in 1978. A lot of those early efforts are not very good—yes, that’s really him in Krull. But Neeson himself was routinely and reliably doing good work, and eventually, he was in Shining Through, which I haven’t seen but Steven Spielberg evidently has, as it’s what led him to cast Neeson as Oskar Schindler.
It’s pretty well impossible to pigeonhole Neeson’s career. He took the Phantom Menace role without reading the script—something you’d think might make him insist on reading scripts first from there, but he apparently still says he enjoyed working on the film. He’s been Rob Roy and Jean Valjean, “Priest” Vallon and Alfred Kinsey. He’s been Zeus and Aslan, Gawain and, um, Hannibal. Douglas MacArthur and Mark Felt. And apparently he’s going to be Philip Marlowe? Say what you like about the man, he’s got range.
And there are things to say. I think we had the opportunity for a heck of a learning experience had he just said, “Yes, I admit it. What I was doing was racist, and I needed to deal with that racism as much as I needed to deal with my anger.” Because more people need to say that sort of thing out loud, so we as a society can process that, yes, you can do better than you had and that racism comes in all sorts of forms. I think he told that story as a way of explaining how deep his anger runs, but it’s a weird story to tell whatever your reasons for doing it.
Liam Neeson has played a wide array of characters with a wide array of emotional beats. He’s played action heroes and charismatic Nazis and the Jesus lion. There’s certainly an argument for not covering him, given the things he’s said recently and his failure to really do the work to understand why so many people are upset and to validate that they’re right to be angry about him. (Come on, dude, “Scot or Brit or Lithuanian”? Like you can tell a Scot from a Brit by looking at them? Do you know how many people somehow don’t realize you’re Northern Irish?) Still, he’s a damn fine actor who needs to stop punching people. In short, Liam Neeson is a land of contrasts.