Gentle giant Liam Neeson's staying power

Liam Neeson is a police officer-turned-insurance salesman in The Commuter.
Liam Neeson is a police officer-turned-insurance salesman in The Commuter.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Actor Liam Neeson, 65, enjoys making action movies too much to give it up

Despite his towering height of 1.93m, Liam Neeson might be the most non-threatening action hero in Hollywood.

On screen and off, he is a gentle giant, his soft Irish brogue and smiling eyes instantly endearing him to everyone except maybe the bad guys he routinely dispatches in the action films that are his calling card.

But at 65, is it starting to strain credibility seeing the Northern Ireland native single-handedly take out a roomful of baddies?

After all, it has been a decade since he starred in 2008's Taken, which launched his action-movie career and turned his character's whispered warning to his daughter's kidnappers - about his "particular set of his skills" - into an enduring pop culture trope.

Yet if you ask him how he feels about critics suggesting he is too old for this racket, or calling him a "geriatric action hero", Neeson will good-naturedly tell you to p*** off.

He was chatting with The Straits Times and a handful of other press in New York recently, when a journalist informs him that the sub-genre he is associated with has been dubbed "geri-action" (a play on "geriatric" and "action").

During the interview, which is to promote his latest film, The Commuter, the actor also appears to walk back his announcement at the Toronto Film Festival last September that he is retiring from these films, even though studios are "still throwing serious money at me to do that stuff".

The movie is showing in Singapore.

Acknowledging that he was 65, he said at the time: "Audiences are eventually going to go: 'Come on.'"

The genre has, of course, made him a colossal movie star.

The three Taken films alone (2008 to 2014) netted almost US$1 billion (S$1.32 billion) globally and Neeson has also landed roles in the Star Wars and The Dark Knight mega-franchises.

This happened years after he originally made his name with serious dramatic films, notably playing the title character in the Holocaust biopic Schindler's List (1993), which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

The Commuter casts him as a police officer-turned-insurance salesman who, in the middle of his daily work commute, finds himself being swept up - as Neeson's characters often are - in an elaborate criminal conspiracy.

At the New York press day, he is asked about his previous comment on not wanting to do any more action films.

"Who said that?" quips the star. "That was September, this is December.

"As long as I can make them with this gentleman, (I will)," he says, nodding at Jaume Collet-Serra, his director on The Commuter as well as Run All Night (2015), Non-Stop (2014) and Unknown (2011).

As for whether he is getting too old to believably headline such stories, Neeson - a widower with two sons, aged 21 and 22, his children with the late actress Natasha Richardson - suggests he still enjoys the genre too much to give it up completely.

This despite the fact that there is some ageism in Hollywood towards older male performers, although he notes it is far worse for actresses.

Neeson got into this line of work in part because he is something of an action junkie, he reveals - and no one was more surprised than him that it became so profitable.

"It was a fluke. I had met (producer) Luc Besson at the Shanghai film festival and we talked about the first Taken script and I said, 'Look, I'm sure I'm not on your list, but I used to be an ex-boxer and I love doing all that stuff if I get the chance.'"

After the film was shot in Paris, he was convinced it was going straight to video even though he thought it was "a good, tight little thriller".

"And then Fox studios took it and did this extraordinary PR job with it and it made money and then, suddenly, at the age of 55, I was being sent all these action scripts," he adds.

Neeson's own particular set of skills, however, is making these B-movie action heroes believable and relatable, no matter how ludicrous the situations they find themselves in.

"We're not playing superheroes here, so the more we can ground them in a reality (the better).

"For example, my guy (in The Commuter) is an insurance salesman - you don't get more basic than that. He commutes (from work to home) for 10 years, doesn't have a particular set of skills, but he was an ex-cop.

"So I think that's a very believable premise to start an action film with."

• The Commuter is showing in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'Gentle giant's staying power'. Print Edition | Subscribe