Liam Neeson is a 65-year-old Oscar nominee who has headlined one Best Picture winner (Schindler’s List), a Batman origin story (Batman Begins), and a Star Wars prequel (The Phantom Menace). Yet despite his long and varied career, Neeson has spent the majority of the past decade as one of cinema’s preeminent action stars. Beginning with 2008’s Taken, the Irish-born Neeson has transformed into a big-screen figure of righteous violence, with his gravelly accent and imposing size making him perfectly suited for exacting justice with his fists as well as his firearms. Having recently confirmed that (contrary to earlier reports) he’s not yet ready to retire from the genre, Neeson will once again dive headfirst into badass material with this Friday’s The Commuter — his fourth collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra. To celebrate, we’ve compiled our rundown of the celebrated actor’s greatest action hits.
10. Gangs of New York
Martin Scorsese’s 2002 epic only briefly features Neeson as “Priest” Vallon, the head of the Irish gang the Dead Rabbits, who’s slain early on by Daniel Day-Lewis’s rival Bill “the Butcher” Cutting. Nonetheless, it’s a memorably ferocious turn, with Neeson taking out more than a few of his enemies before meeting his grisly fate — which serves as the catalyst for his son, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), to seek revenge against Bill.
9. Seraphim Falls
Neeson is a Confederate colonel on the trail of Pierce Brosnan’s Union soldier — whom he blames for committing a heinous wartime atrocity — in this mano a mano 2006 revisionist western. Compelled by an obsessive hunger for vengeance, Neeson’s Morsman Carver is one of his most intensely furious characters, his anger and mania building until the two finally meet in a concluding face-off.
8. The A-Team
It may not have been lauded by critics or embraced by audiences, but Joe Carnahan’s 2010 big-screen version of the popular ’80s TV show delivers on its cartoon-action premise — thanks, in large part, to Neeson as cigar-loving A-Team leader Col. John “Hannibal” Smith. It’s a big, broad performance perfectly in tune with the proceedings’ outrageously over-the-top mayhem.
7. Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace
To relaunch his beloved franchise, director George Lucas enlisted Neeson to spearhead 1999’s The Phantom Menace as Qui-Gon Jinn, the wise yet fierce Jedi Master who takes Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi under his wing — and, crucially, locates young Darth Vader-to-be Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Though he doesn’t make it to the prequel’s sequels, his climactic battle with McGregor against Ray Park’s Darth Maul remains a franchise high point.
6. Batman Begins
Batman is most interesting when pitted against a great adversary, and that’s especially true in Batman Begins, which benefits from the presence of Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul, the mentor turned enemy of Bale’s Dark Knight. Preaching cleansing-fire revolution with suave rationality (and a great goatee), Neeson — appearing mostly in the early and late going of the 2005 movie — proves a devilish figure of fanaticism.
Blending mystery and action to effective means, Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2014 thriller finds Neeson trying to extricate himself from a complicated blackmail-murder plot aboard a crowded passenger plane. Co-starring Julianne Moore, it’s a consistently gripping (if somewhat preposterous) whodunit that allows Neeson to both develop a character and crack a few skulls.
Evil Dead director Sam Raimi was the first filmmaker to recognize Neeson’s full butt-kicking potential, of which he took excellent advantage in 1990’s Darkman. An original superhero story by way of Universal horror homage, it stars Neeson as a scientist who survives a mobster’s deadly attack and then embarks on a mission of revenge by donning a series of synthetic-mask disguises.
3. The Grey
Joe Carnahan’s 2011 film, his second collaboration with Neeson, is a fantastic survival film about a group of oil men who find themselves fighting for their lives — against the elements, and a pack of hungry wolves — after their plane goes down in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. At once thrilling and slyly profound, it’s arguably Neeson’s best film of the past 10 years.
2. Rob Roy
Neeson brings commanding gravity to this under-heralded 1995 epic in which he plays 18th-century Scotsman Rob Roy MacGregor, who finds himself at odds with Tim Roth’s dastardly nobleman. It’s as much a drama as an action film, but the final sword-fight showdown between Neeson and Roth (in an Oscar-nominated supporting part) is one for the ages.
As Bryan Mills in this 2008 thriller, Neeson gives arguably the most memorable speech of his career (into a cellphone, to a kidnapper) and then goes on a career-redefining rampage in search of his snatched daughter. There’s a reason Pierre Morel’s film turned Neeson into a superior breed of one-man army — it’s A-plus exploitation cinema driven by a fearsome lead performance.
The Commuter opens Friday. Watch the trailer:
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