Ricky Young wades deep into the subgenre known only as Big Liam Films, and tries to avoid a damn good punching to the face as he does so.
We open on an imposing yet graceful man, beset by personal tragedy (a wife taken too young, say), who faces each sunrise burdened by the many horrors he’s seen. The many horrors he’s created.
A functional alcoholic, his ties to the everyday world blurred through layers of semi-official obscurity, he knows his day will probably contain mystery, injury and intense and brutal violence. Any moments of quietude or tenderness will be fleeting and false. We join him, knowing we’ll be revolted by what we see, but are unable to look away.
But enough about James Bond, we’ll be reviewing SPECTRE later this year. How about all those Big Liam films, though, eh?
Liam Neeson stood out from the crowd from his earliest days on screen, due to both his size (his height, we mean. The rumours that he has Hollywood’s Largest Wang we’ll leave in a box over there) and a rare ability to convincingly mix physical intensity with emotional vulnerability. Jobbing film and telly roles in multiple genres during the 80s and early 90s saw him slowly climb the Tinseltown tree, until Steven Spielberg cast him as a monochrome Moses in 1993’s Schindler’s List. An A-list journeyman after that, the Brick Shithouse Who Can Also Cry latterly mixed-up prestige dramas that required a real man with big-ticket blockbuster pieces-of-shit where he just got to stand around looking imposing while picking up a cheque.
At this point, Big Liam films as we now know them didn’t exist. He was in films, sure, and he continued to be big. But when he punched someone, it was likely to be a comic-book psychopath in a rubber suit as opposed to anything else.
In 2008 he starred in the Luc Besson-arranged Taken, to which we’ll return. A year later his wife, Natasha Richardson, died in a skiing accident. Now, we’re not going to get all Internets Psychologist on you here – our own grasp on sanity is too shaky for that, for starters – but it could take quite a lot for a then-57-year-old movie star to self-create a really pretty specific genre of action films where sad, broken, angry old men get pushed beyond their limits and react to confusion, loss and despair by breaking out the ultraviolence and opening entire supermarkets filled with cans of whup-ass.
The unexpected death of a much-loved life-partner could do that, I suppose. Me, I wouldn’t know, my idea of commitment is reading to the end of the menu.
But Big Liam films are real, they exist, they sit for not-very-long in cinemas and for-fucking-ever on streaming services, and generally only ever get watched as a compromise when she isn’t going to watch any more superhero shit, and he isn’t going to watch any of your sappy romcom balls, and look, what about this Big Liam film, it can’t be that bad, it’s got Liam Neeson in it, okay, bung it on, and if you think I’m going to your mother’s again this Sunday then think again. Pass the wine.
The thing is, Big Liam films are <whisper it> actually pretty enjoyable, with one-and-a-half major exceptions. Join us now as we take a wander through them, MostlyFilm-style! Which is like cajun-style, only with more snark and fewer stupid accents.
That’s not to say Big Liam hasn’t continued to commit to blockbusters of a sort – such as Battleship, or Clash of the Titans – or weirdly unsettling comedic bits in things like The Lego Movie or Anchorman 2. But outside of Big Liam films, he seems to stick to cameos or voice-work, and devotes most of his time to flattening people who obviously deserve it. Although, now I think about it, he did pop up for a few seconds in the Entourage movie, and if ever there was a gaggle of preening cock-knockers who needed the living shit kicked out of them, it was those guys.
Right, let’s go!
SPOILER WARNING: If you care about spoilers – go to your writing desk, get an envelope, seal it, pay an urchin to put it through your door, look at it with surprise, pick it up, open it, and then pretend it’s an invitation from me, to you, to go fuck yourself.
There’s not a lot to Taken. It’s a to-type Luc Besson joint (although he didn’t direct it), which means a Euro setting, highly-strung melodrama, acceptably crunchy and realistic-feeling violence, and a breathless plot filled with enough outlandish coincidences that you suspect that the cutting-room floor might be home to a good half-hour of Taken that was deemed not completely necessary.
Big Liam films usually start with everything Having All Gone Wrong for Big Liam. The early getting-to-know-you scenes pick liberally from a template that contains, but isn’t restricted to: ‘lost love’, ‘estranged family’, ‘not understanding the modern world’, ‘substance abuse’, ‘ageing’, ‘the horrors of previous spy-work’, or <gulp> ‘dead wife’. This is portrayed via few minutes of scene-setting where Liam’s sad, wrinkled eyes do most of the work, and we witness the purgatory of his character’s life, just waiting to be torn apart by terrorists, nature, or January Jones.
Actually, slicing together the opening eight minutes of every Big Liam film would give you an entirely new movie, which you could pass off as a tragic documentary about a massive Irish tramp.
Bryan Mills, which Taken insists on calling Big Liam, is an ex-CIA man and hard-ass dad who reluctantly lets his idiot daughter fly to Europe with her bad-influence mate. (I know it’s not very chivalrous to call his daughter an idiot, but there’s a reason for that, and it’s because she’s written and played as an idiot.)
But Europe, as we all know, is simply one giant pit of swarthy, tattooed sex-traffickers, and before long, little Idiotica has been kidnapped while on the phone to her pops, enabling Big Liam to say That Brilliant Bit Everyone Remembers, and get on a plane to Not-America in order to kick some European butt and rescue rocks-for-brains.
It’s a fairly lean (if dumb) journey, from airport to untrustworthy Parisian cop ‘pal’ to brothel to Albanian gangsters to shooting untrustworthy cop ‘pal’s’ wife in the leg for being untrustworthy to finding bad-influence mate dead to ludicrous virgin-auction-for-Middle-Eastern millionaires to shoot-out on yacht to home again, where everyone’s happy because it’s America and not Europe and nobody cares about the dead bad-influence mate.
So why did this grubby potboiler kick off a sub-genre? Well, five main reasons I can think of – one, it’s slick, thick, relentless, breathless fun. Two, it’s not trying to be anything other than what it is, and a little bit of self-awareness goes a long way. Three, Big Liam really can punch people real good. Four, Big Liam’s obvious (if perverse) commitment to what was, essentially, trash, made everyone think that they’d like to see more of this perversely committed trash.
And five – it brought in nine times what it cost to make. The importance of this interesting ratio will crop up again during this article, mark my words.
Sticking with what works. That helps in genre-building. The next Big Liam film was 2011’s Unknown, kicking off a reliable three-film collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra with a gimmicky replay of Polanski’s Frantic, only flipped around and less washed-out and boring.
This time, Dr. Martin Harris, as Unknown insists on calling Big Liam, is fresh from flying into Berlin with his wife, played by January Jones. (Ol’ JJ gets a hard time from nearly everyone for being a terrible actress, but what if she’s actually a brilliant actress with an, ahem, very narrow range? Ever think about that? Cyphers, blank pages, statue-like iciness? Jan’s your girl – why look anywhere else?)
Leaving a briefcase at the airport, he nips back from the hotel to get it in a taxi driven by illegal immigrant Diane Kruger, which crashes into a river, leaving Liam in a coma for four days. When he wakes up, he knows who he is, but nobody else does, not even his wife! In fact, he’s been replaced by another dude, who says he’s Dr Martin Harris! Imagine that!
From then on, we’re into race-against-time territory, as Liam tries to figure out who this is and why he’s in this mess, and it’s a rollocking mix of car-chases, fighting, spies, ex-Stasi private dicks and pretty refugee assistants, none of which should work as well as it does, but what can I say? For a load of preposterous old shit, it keeps you guessing right up until very nearly the end – possibly by keeping the preposterous-levels cranked slightly too high, but, again, everyone involved is giving it 100%, and that buys a lot of slack. And it’s never boring.
This film made four times what it cost to create.
The year before Unknown, while the concept of Big Liam films were still becoming A Thing, Mr. Neeson got involved with a big-screen remake of The A-Team, to the delight and enjoyment of no-one. Two years later in 2012, he regrouped with the director and producers to star in The Grey, by far the bleakest Big Liam film and certainly not one to watch if at risk of existential gloom.
John Ottway, as The Grey insists on calling Big Liam, is a walking picture of despair and depression – he works as a rifleman, protecting an Alaskan oil installation from wolves, and seems to have reached the end of his tether, for opaque reasons. On his last day at work, he writes a letter to his wife, telling her he’s had it up to here with this world, and walks out into the snowy night to suck on the wrong end of his Remington. And then he bottles it.
The next day, his plane home crashes in the wilderness, and he’s left with a small band of his surviving work colleagues to try and get to safety, not before he takes a time-out to inform a dying man – plus all those around them and each and every one of us in the audience – that we’re all tiny specks of nothingness; brief sparks in the endless and eternal night, and very little we say or do is going to change that anytime soon. So whether you’ve got sixty years or – as here – two minutes until the lights go out, you’d better cling to what you can while you’ve got the chance.
If you thought that was a hard sell, immediately after, Nature turns up red in tooth and claw, and in what’s essentially an open condemnation of George Monbiot’s entire career, Liam and his cabal of charmless goobers get stalked by a pack of – irony of ironies – vicious, bloodthirsty, ultimately revenge-seeking wolves.
Much whittling-down of the goons and railing against the brutal unfairness of life later – nearly all of it excitingly-done – Big Liam (who we come to know was driven to solitude and suicide by the, yuh-huh, premature death of his wife…) faces off against his hairy nemesis, and – well, actually, I’ll leave that one for you. You might like it, you might not, but you’ll remember it.
This movie, possibly because it was a bit of a downer, made only three times what it cost to make.
But not enough money. 2012 saw a return to the cash-well, with Bryan Mills, as Taken 2 still insists on calling Big Liam, down for a) another turn as the gauche, overprotective awkward dick we’ve come to know and tolerate, and b) more face-punching action against people who want to fuck with him.
It starts off promisingly, with the daddy of all the Albanian gangsters Liam murdered (he wasn’t even a cop, or anything!) in the first film swearing to take him down using a whole bunch of other Albanian gangsters – ‘Albania’ here being ‘a village in the mountains filled with gangsters and nothing else’, but then rapidly derails once Liam’s family arrives in Istanbul, City Of Filming Tax-Breaks, for a holiday, and he and his wife (the ferociously underused Famke Janssen) get captured, leaving only little Idiotica to help save the day.
There’s nothing wrong with making a dumb movie because you want to (see Taken), but there’s plenty wrong with making a dumb movie because you have to (see here). The implausibilities and massive coincidences pile up until you realise you’ve shouted ‘oh, for fuck’s sake!’ at the screen around twenty times, and none of this is helped by director Olivier Megaton being absurdly bad at directing action sequences. Frantic, choppy editing, no sense of flow or physical space – when the action starts, you basically just sit it out as the screen flashes for a bit and you wait to see who wins, while hoping you’re not secretly epileptic.
(This might get something of a pass if it was just to, say, disguise the advanced age and lack-of-limber of the leading man, but no, the car chases are just as bad, if not worse, than the fighting.)
We don’t know which is more ludicrous; the never-ending supply of identikit Albanian fuckwits just ripe for dispatching – seriously, there’s hundreds of them – or our hero trying to memorise his abduction journey by listening for unmistakable and world-famous Istanbul landmarks (“Man hitting metal…..boat sounds……birds.”) or Idiotica being told to provide location advice by setting off flippin’ hand-grenades on Turkish rooftops. Big Liam is the only thing that stops the disc getting flung out of the window – everything else might be dogshit, but his ramrod-straight performance somehow keeps you from reaching for the off-button.
Suspending your disbelief is fine, but Taken 2 asks you to attach your disbelief to a Russian rocket and dangle it off the ISS.
But, again, somehow (and the somehows might be connected) this film took eight times what it cost to make.
But next we’re back in the surer hands of director Jaume Collet-Serra, and 2014’s overlooked Non-Stop.
Bill Marks, as Non-Stop insists on calling Big Liam, is an alcoholic Air-Marshal with a tragic past. Not long into a routine transatlantic flight, and after we’ve been painted brief character portraits of a whole bunch of random-seeming passengers, he gets a text on his special Air Marshal phone that someone’s going to be killed on board every twenty minutes until a ransom demand is met.
So far, so intriguing, but the tension is ramped up pretty sharpish when most of his usual techniques immediately stop working, someone is killed, and it’s left to Big Liam’s gimlet stare and shovel-like fists to try and figure out the extortionist’s fiendish plan.
Non-Stop shares with Unknown the hard-to-achieve skill of piling crazy thing on top of crazy thing until it all collapses in a big heap of crazy and a) you still don’t mind, and b) you weren’t sure exactly how it was all going to end until a minute or two before it actually did. Compare this to Taken 2, where the entire plot hinges on little Idiotica, despite having been already sold into sex-slavery in the previous film, being the only teenager in the world pathologically unwilling to answer or even look at her phone for hours on end.
Non-Stop doesn’t even get the chance to take a breather with a nice car-chase through a European city, like nearly all Big Liam films do. Thrillingly, it does manage to do that whole ‘text-messages-appearing-in-mid-air-for-the-audience-to-read’ thing off of Sherlock, without it being super-annoying, like on Sherlock.
One long, tense, bottle episode, it deserves more than being skipped past on Netflix.
And, pleasingly, this film made four times what it cost to make.
Later the same year, we were treated to A Walk Among The Tombstones, directed by Scott Frank – the screenwriter of Out Of Sight and Minority Report, if we’re interested in things like that, which we are. It was easy to miss, with a bad title, rubbish poster and uninviting premise.
Matthew Scudder, which A Walk Among The Tombstones insists on calling big Liam, was an alcoholic cop with a tragic past. Now an AA-attending private dick, he’s asked by a local drug boss to investigate the disappearance of his wife. Big Liam does indeed find the wife, but chopped up and sealed into dozens of ziplock-bags in the back of a car, which spurs him into investigating further and sets the tone for this brutal and relentlessly grim slice of noir.
I don’t mean that in a bad way – it’s a decent watch. Based on a series of books by Lawrence Block (which MostlyFilm doesn’t pay me enough to look into properly, but appears to be a sort of hard-boiled, downbeat Jack Reacher thing), Scudder does his sleuthin’ not by pointing at CCTV screens and shouting ‘enhance that!’, but just by walking around the city in a trenchcoat, noticing things and trying not to get killed by the lady-slicing serial-killers as he does so. After a while, the taking-its-time pace normalises the little bits of horror you get to glimpse every so often, and by the time the final set-piece turns into a bloody, revolting shitshow, the dread has been ramped up so slowly that you haven’t noticed you’re on the edge of your seat.
Another way of looking at A Walk Among The Tombstones could be that it’s queasy and exploitative, and that might have some validity, but Big Liam’s low-energy righteousness keeps things grounded and sane enough. And besides, AWATT doesn’t have to take any lessons in genuine exploitation from, say, Taken 2, which deliberately puts Idiotica into a bikini for no reason, just so it can have her run around in it in terror, for very specific reasons.
A Walk Among The Tombstones, with a lot going against it, still doubled its budget. And, you’ll be pleased to know, Big Liam did actually take a walk among some tombstones.
The eagle-eyed among you will notice that while all the Big Liam films so far have made plenty of cash, the real skrilla-machines have been the continuing adventures of The Family Mills. And so last year, with not a little brou-ha-ha, we were handed a third slice of Taken pie. Not as tasty as the first one, but not quite as revolting as the second, the latest in our favourite Euro-messes changed tack by going nowhere near Europe and all its disgusting and perverted ways.
Bryan Mills, as Taken 3 absurdly continues to insist on calling Big Liam, is enjoying a bit of the quiet life when things take a turn for the tragic and his ex-wife (and mother-of-Idiotica) Lenore is murdered, with him seemingly in the frame.
The first half-hour of Taken 3 is promising, as the franchise alters slightly and becomes a big-budget whodunnit, complete with a juicy mystery, a memorable second-tier cast, and Forest Whitaker swallowing his pride and taking a cheque for reprising his Huge Malevolent Spider routine from The Shield.
The whodunnit evaporates, unfortunately, due to one bit of misguided recasting – Lenore’s second husband, Xander Berkeley in the first film, has regenerated into Dougray Scott, he of the cadaver-like visage and eternal sweaty shiftiness. The game is, as soon as he slithers on-screen, a bogey.
Watching the expensive Russian-gangster-enabled mayhem play out wouldn’t be too bad a way to spend 90 minutes, mind you, until you remember we’re in the shaky, spasming hands of Olivier Megaton, who again can’t picture an action sequence in his head without desperately wanting to fuck it up with a zillion cuts a minute and zero understanding of physics or movement in the slightest.
The original Taken’s breezy attitude to violence is undercut here by the PG-13 rating, and this means that the constant threat of gear-crunching excitement which then fails to materialise drags the energy levels down hugely. By the end, Big Liam, although happy he’s soon to be a grandfather (Idiotica now set on replicating her unfortunate DNA), just seems tired, and so does the film – it ends on the now-traditional Awkward Note so beloved of the Taken movies, and it doesn’t seem to care.
I was tired too, after all this. If you are, that’s what you get for reading 3000+ words on an old man punching shifty foreigners in the throat.
(We haven’t seen Run All Night yet, although since it’s another Jaume Collet-Serra gig, we definitely will. That kid has promise.)
Can Big Liam films have that much more sauce in them before he’s too old or too cranky to make them? Possibly quite a lot of people who care about money are having earnest meetings about that sort of thing right now.
There remains an unshakeable audience-pleasing core at the centre of all of this, and who could have suspected action cinema was just waiting for a giant Ballymena pensioner to give it a kick up the arse as a distraction from the alternative – sitting around his big New York townhouse, desperately wishing his wife was there too?
Despite everything, and rather amazingly, Taken 3 still managed to bring in seven times what it cost to make, and while the signs are that Peak Big Liam might have passed – if I was suspicious-looking, and from Eastern Europe, and liked crime and stubble and kidnapping daft wee lassies, I don’t think I’d be throwing out my private maxillofacial clinic brochures just yet.
Ricky Young can be punched in the face on The Tweeter.