Liam Neeson's Five Best and Worst Movies
We appraise the Ballymena-born Hollywood heavyweight's five best and five worst films. Agree or disagree?
Everyone likes Liam Neeson. He’s big, bold and takes no nonsense. Since breaking out in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the Ballymena-born actor – who cut his thespian teeth at Belfast's Lyric Theatre before becoming a Hollywood heavyweight – has come into his own as a genuine box office presence, at home in emotional dramas, historical epics or explosive thrillers.
From portraying Michael Collins in Neil Jordan's 1996 biopic to donning Zeus’s beard in Clash of the Titans and its follow up, Wrath of the Titans, Neeson has brought a rabid work ethic to each of his many movies, good and bad, a recent rebirth as an action hero playing off his physical stature and noble countenance.
In anticipation of the release of his newest film, Run All Night, Culture Northern Ireland presents a list of his five worst films followed by his five finest – because, for all his action exploits, it should never been forgotten that Liam Neeson is an Oscar-nominated big-hitter of modern cinema. First, let's consider the films we would all rather forget...
Five – Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
By the time the first Star Wars film in 17 years hit cinemas on May 19, 1999, public anticipation was at a fever pitch. George Lucas’s decision to release a trilogy of prequels to his seminal sci-fi romp had been gleefully received by millions of fans worldwide. What a pity then that this new chapter was, to put it kindly, not very good. One would be a fool to expect anything more profound than the pulpy silliness of the original troika but the tepid nature of The Phantom Menace made its progenitors look like The Godfather series.
A couple of legendary missteps aside (Jar Jar Binks; a pre-pubescent Darth Vader), Lucas, more broadly, completely misplaced his old magic, mistaking CGI glitz for an actual story and largely failing to deliver excitement on either front. The dull narrative centred on the discovery by Qui Gon Jinn (a smirking Neeson) of a junior Anakin Skywalker — future apprentice and, later again, arch antagonist Vader — the chirpy moppet who promptly undermined so much of what once made Star Wars great: sarcasm, cheekiness, a knowing tongue-in-cheek sense of fun.
Instead, while Qui Gon and Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, apparently constipated) slouch around a mortifying political subplot and indecipherable subaqueous civilisations, this quickly assumes a dull air, more afternoon matinee than space opera. Only the magnificent ‘Duel of Fates’ scene involving Neeson, McGregor and Ray Park’s Darth Maul — the bravura sequence boasted a double-bladed lightsaber and John Williams’s massive soundtrack — prevented complete collapse.
Four – The Other Man
Maybe it’s his aura of Celtic vulnerability but Neeson, in spite of his angular physicality, is no stranger to romantic ensembles. A few have been terrible (Chloe, Third Person), some far more jolly (Love Actually), but The Other Man, Richard Eyre’s 2008 film co-starring Antonio Banderas and Kinsey alum Laura Linney (see below), is a dreadful concoction of cloying melodrama and pointless European locales, all passed off as actual substance.
The film relies almost completely on a central conceit that feels clever at first but quickly loses its appeal as Peter (Neeson) attempts to unravel the mystery of the secret, separate life that his wife, Lisa (Linney) has been living with oily Italian lothario Ralph. The notional lead, Neeson stalks his way around Milan, tracking Ralph and playing chess with him in a quaint café (because that’s what people do in Europe, isn’t it?) while keeping his real identity hidden.
The tension levels never rise above lukewarm and the eroticism of its smouldering transatlantic passions fizzle out long before a saccharine finale that Neeson’s face greets more like a desperate attempt to unblock a toilet. Given that Eyre directed the unsettling Notes on a Scandal, his work here is especially grim.
Three – Five Minutes of Heaven
As pictures about the Troubles go, there is something vaguely unforgivable about Oliver Hirschbiegel’s vapid, corny drama. The director may be German and the screenwriter, Guy Hibbert, English (neither fact disqualifies any outsider from commenting on Northern Ireland’s late unpleasantness, of course, as Steve McQueen and Paul Greengrass have so eloquently proved) but with a familiar setting and strong local cast, Five Minutes of Heaven should have delivered so much more when it debuted in 2009.
If one takes McQueen’s superb Hunger, released in the previous year, as the high watermark for this genre, Hirschbiegel falls some way short of matching the latter’s sincerity and visceral impact. The faults come in the staging, as ostensibly authentic elements fall apart under closer examination.
Neeson portrays an ex-loyalist paramilitary who, in 1975, murdered a random Catholic (Gerard Jordan) in his Lurgan home — helpfully marked out for the audience by the green, white and orange ‘IRA’ sign nailed to a post opposite his house — while the man’s little brother watched on, implanting a destructive rage in the sibling that lasts into his own adulthood.
That the murderer and his gang come across less like eager young militants than middle-class Belfast schoolboys is one thing but the overarching feeling is one of superficiality. From Neeson’s gentle, repentant killer, seeking reconciliation, to James Nesbitt as the tormented survivor plotting vengeance, not a second of it feels real. Obvious budgetary constraints notwithstanding, what truly hobbles this film is the notion that it is spinning a yarn that nobody who lived through that chaos could ever recognise.
Two – Battleship
To the average punter, basing a film on a board game that nobody below the age of 30 has ever played should sound like a stupid idea. In Hollywood, however, it carries the whiff of box office gold. Low concepts are extremely popular. They involve minimal creative effort, no originality and are easily padded by throwing frame after frame of bright, digitally rendered rubbish at the mob. In essence, this is exactly what Battleship (2012) represents. Aliens versus warships might sound a glib précis of the plot, but that accurately sums up its turgid pretensions.
Peter Berg directs, undercutting, yet again, the early promise he showed as a filmmaker with his searing Friday Night Lights. Here, any suggestion that he could be a latter-day Michael Mann dissipates from the opening minutes, where an excruciatingly staged ‘soccer’ match between rival navies soils the beautiful game to a degree that would make Sepp Blatter jealous. Incredibly, that is the high point for Berg’s stricken vessel.
Neeson glowers throughout as the Admiral who displays little delight in the fact that his identikit blonde progeny (Brooklyn Decker) is fluttering her eyelashes at vacant lead, Taylor Kitsch. Even as the pedestrian action ramps up, the veteran never looks close to being engaged, sporting instead the expression of a man ruminating on the fact that he once got to play Oskar Schindler, but is now having to bark out dialogue so risible that The Gilmore Girls sounds high concept by comparison: 'Put the force at weapons posture one, warning red, weapons tight. I want everything loaded.' Oh dear.
One – Taken 2 & Taken 3
Distinct films they may be, but as unnecessary sequels to Pierre Morel’s original Euro thriller, it is virtually impossible to separate these two train wrecks. Both are indescribably awful movies, offering little more than a handy top-up of Neeson's bank balance.
For all its crassness, Taken, released in 2008, was an admittedly guilty pleasure, its nasty, hard-edged tone landing somewhere to the distant right of this morning’s Daily Express. The subsequent entries, in 2012 and 2014, however, were mere money-making exercises, sterilised and robbed of the first film’s darker strands for the purpose of maximum exposure. With French action hack Olivier Megaton at the helm, the inevitability of the pair's rank incompetence was all too obvious.
As ageing ex-spy Bryan Mills, Neeson's delight at being involved decreases, palpably, with each instalment. Taken 2 involves him rescuing his family and hunting down dirtbags in Istanbul. Taken 3 lazily uses the same idea, except this time it’s set in a Los Angeles that seems less interesting than an average rainy weekend in Blackpool. Featuring, as just a sample of their inherent flaws, staccato editing and an air of boredom that is impossible to ignore, these are two tales best consigned to the bargain bin.
It's not all bad, however, as these top five Neeson vehicles remind us...
Five – Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's Cut
When Ridley Scott’s crusades epic first arrived on screens ten years ago, the disappointment was palpable. For all the dazzling visuals — and this is, arguably, the most beautiful looking picture of the last decade — the choppy plot and uninteresting premise sullenly undermined Scott’s vintage ambition. With a confused looking Orlando Bloom in the lead and a story that lurched from one gorgeous tableau to the next, Kingdom of Heaven seemed destined to be deemed a failure as grand as its massive sets.
Thank goodness then for the director’s cut. Unshackled by the studio interference that corrupted his theatrical version, Scott released his true vision for home consumption. The result is breathtaking, challenging and insightful in equal measures. His injection of soaring choral interludes (removed, irritatingly, from the UK DVD release) lent the whole thing a heightened ethereality that few peers can match.
An additional 45 minutes rounded out multiple characterisations, not least Godfrey of Bouillon, the mighty crusading knight played with flinty confidence by Neeson. Surrounded by a band of multicultural warriors, Godfrey serves as Scott’s dependable cornerstone, his dash of cold European pragmatism beneath the warm sun of Palestine. Neeson, for his part, delicately embraced the chance to present himself in a film of such startling beauty.
Four – Batman Begins
It was in a rare villainous role that Neeson filled out Christopher Nolan’s rippling reinvigoration of the Batman canon, a franchise that had failed, until that point, to recover from the abject embarrassment of Batman & Robin in 1997. Eight years later, Nolan – that apostle of high-end realism – stripped the Dark Knight down to his bare bones, creating a spartan and pitch-black study of Batman (played by Christian Bale) as a product of his environment rather than a bulwark against it.
There is action aplenty before the finale but the true conflict arises between Neeson’s clearly insane proto-vigilante, Ra’s al Ghul, and the erstwhile Bruce Wayne, his one-time protégé, holder of a significantly purer morality, and now, in the cowl and cape of the eponymous protector, a sworn enemy. Neeson personifies a suave, restrained power and clearly relishes the opportunity to get under the skin of the man who created an icon.
Three – The Mission
Twenty nine years after its release, Roland Joffé’s historical masterpiece has lost of none of its majesty or resonance. If anything, The Mission appears even more significant in an age of franchises, reboots and unnecessary sequels. Films like this — a faintly distant opus that offers little in the way of narrative handholding — are simply not made anymore.
Neeson himself filled a relatively minor part, as gentle priest Fielding, but such is the often unspoken, meandering nature of Joffé’s picture that even its over-the-title leads, Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, fade against the backdrop of the larger spectacle.
As modern plots become ever more exposition-fuelled, this tale of a Jesuit mission in the depths of the Amazon, led by the fearless Gabriel (Irons) and tortured Mendoza (DeNiro), feels strangely uncomplicated; it is anything but. Complex and unfiltered, this offers up a graceful condemnation of unfettered imperialism in the guise of grandiose cinema. As a moving ode to religion’s singular power, it is without equal.
Two – Kinsey
In 2004, Neeson portrayed groundbreaking American biologist Alfred Kinsey, a man whose study of human sexuality in the 1940s and 1950s so shocked a conservative nation. Within the confines of his academic surroundings at the University of Indiana, Kinsey delved deep into his subject, busting taboos as he went and publishing seminal volumes that redefined America’s view of its own intimacy.
Bill Condon’s fascinating biopic is witty and elegant, a finely tuned period play that trains a frank, mature gaze on its occasionally uncomfortable subject matter. Stout support comes in the form of Oliver Platt, Peter Sarsgaard and Laura Linney – Oscar nominated for her turn as Kinsey’s free-thinking wife – each embracing the tricky themes with a knowing sense of amusement.
Neeson, however, is the star, adept at confidently shouldering Kinsey’s mix of scientific zeal and deep-seated issues around his own sexual confusion. As a character, Kinsey is every bit as complex as Oskar Schindler. His struggle to redefine society’s priggish repression becomes no less personal by the film’s final third, puritans and feds circling him like sharks.
One – Schindler’s List
Neeson beat out competition from Kevin Costner, Warren Beatty and Mel Gibson to secure the role of Oskar Schindler in Spielberg’s defining 1993 adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel, Schindler’s Ark, winning his one and only Oscar nomination as a result. Schindler, a wealthy German industrialist and member of the Nazi party — for the sake of sound business practice — saved over 1,000 Jews from extermination by employing them as essential workers in his factories during the Second World War.
As one expects from a filmmaker of Spielberg’s peerless standards, his picture is a quietly horrifying depiction of the Holocaust. Shot in a rich monochrome, this paints a stunning portrait of the era’s painfully ordinary cruelties, personified by Ralph Fiennes’s casually psychotic camp warden, Amon Goeth, and its remarkable instances of human kindness.
Anchored by a wondrous score from John Williams and Itzhak Perlman’s haunting theme, Schindler’s List saw Neeson announce himself as a serious lead actor possessed of genuine star quality. Conniving, unknowable, motivated by something between financial expediency and moral courage, his Schindler is far from a sainted crusader that the passage of time might otherwise forge.
Instead, this is a real hero, cast as a rounded, conflicted human who risked everything he had, all he held dear, to carry his people away from oblivion, to the promised land of life and dignity. Spielberg’s passion piece is a film that few can watch more than once, but it, and its star, may never be forgotten.
Run All Night goes on general release March 13.