If you’re anything like us, you’re going to see this weekend’s Wrath of the Titans for one reason, and one reason only: Liam Neeson. Oh sure, it looks like a big, handsome fantasy epic (and it can only be an improvement on the last one, right?), but Liam Neeson slowly but surely turned into one of the biggest movie stars in the world, right under our noses. Starting his career with tiny roles in films like Excalibur and Krull, Neeson gradually worked his way up to leading man status in the 1990s, but his world-weary manliness only turned into a genuine box office draw in the 2000s. You can’t say he didn’t pay his dues.
So to pay him back for decades of great roles, we’re taking a look at Five Great Movies starring the man himself, Liam Neeson. These aren’t his best movies, per se, but they’re five damned great ones. Did we leave your favorite off the list? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to tweet your suggestions for future topics to @williambibbiani.
Schindler’s List (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993)
What more can be said about Schindler’s List? Steven Spielberg’s iconic Best Picture winner was the first major Hollywood film to deal directly with the horrors of the Holocaust, and while harsh critics may find quibbles here and there (the ending is certainly overdramatized, an issue common to Spielberg’s movies), it remains a powerful account. Liam Neeson turned heads as Oskar Schindler, a real-life German businessman who saved over a thousand Jewish lives in Nazi Germany by employing them in his munitions factories. His motives may have initially been selfish – since Jewish labor was cheap – but eventually he made great sacrifices to save his refugees from the concentration camps. Spielberg’s film doesn’t shy away from illustrating the horrors endured by Jews in World War II, even though its protagonist was actually a Catholic, and was a major turning point in the filmmaker’s career.
Rob Roy (dir. Michael Caton-Jones, 1995)
Overshadowed by 1995’s other Scottish action movie, a little thing called Braveheart, was Michael Caton-Jones roaring adaptation of Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy, about a highlands farmer who turns outlaw after his loan from the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt) is stolen by the nobleman’s vicious henchman, Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth). Rob Roy isn’t your typical wall-to-wall action film, establishing Neeson’s protagonist as a man who nobly avoids bloodshed whenever possible, but that just elevates his few moments of Robin Hood heroism to godhood. The climactic swordfight, between Neeson and a spectacular Tim Roth (Oscar-nominated for his performance), is one of the best ever filmed. And pay close attention to the dialogue: Caton-Jones threw in some truly NC-17 rated dialogue without anyone looking.
Kinsey (dir. Bill Condon, 2004)
Liam Neeson took on the role of a more controversial real-life figure in Kinsey, Bill Condon’s refreshingly evenhanded look at the life of a man who pioneered the science of sexuality. As Alfred Kinsey, Neeson plays a man who an actual understanding of sexual drives, activities, attitudes and orientations at a time when religion and social taboo prevented people of all ages from having an accurate view of their own private lives. In the process, he and his associates partook in experimental sexual lifestyles, practicing free love and bisexuality. Neeson beautifully conveys Kinsey’s own sexual awakening, balancing it with his professional dedication to learning the truth about subjects many would have preferred not to talk about. Although he begins to believe that an open attitude towards sexuality is more healthy than arbitrary monogamy, you can feel his heart breaking when he discovers that human nature makes any kind of relationship more complicated than it has to be, at least on paper.
Taken (dir. Pierre Morel, 2008)
Liam Neeson had appeared in action movies for decades, in films ranging from Excalibur to Darkman, before getting his best tough guy role to date in Taken, Pierre Morel’s kidnapping thriller from 2008. Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent whose attempts to reconnect with the family he put on hold for years fall sadly flat. But when his daughter (Maggie Grace) is kidnapped on a vacation in Europe, the talents which drove them apart are the only thing that can possibly bring them together again. Pierre Morel captures the thrilling action sequences just as perfectly as the human drama, as Mills goes above and beyond the usual “action hero” behavior, placing innocents in danger and torturing suspects to death in a desperate attempt to find his daughter before her time runs out. Taken was an instant classic.
The Grey (dir. Joe Carnahan, 2012)
It’s too soon to call it a classic, but not too soon to call it great. Joe Carnahan’s blisteringly icy survivalist saga The Grey finds Liam Neeson as a man with a tragic past, stranded in the Yukon with a small group of frightened plane crash survivors. That would be bad enough, but they’re also being hunted by a pack of man-eating wolves. Carnahan’s direction keeps the terror intimate, and only pulls back a few times to sell the scope of his hero’s life-or-death situation, letting Neeson do most of the heavy lifting with his harrowed performance. If there were one man we’d want on our side in a jam, it would be Liam Neeson. Not his character in The Grey, necessarily, just… Liam Neeson. It’s the part he was born to play. So it’s weird that his A-Team co-star Bradley Cooper almost got the role instead.