Liam Neeson plays the rough-around-the-edges action adventure hero better than any lead actor since Robert Mitchum, having both the steel in his voice and the sensitivity in his eyes to make him one of the most compelling screen tough guys Hollywood has seen in many moons.
His golden touch at the box office is undisputed too. "Taken 3," the final chapter in his massively popular family hostage revenge drama, opened with an eye-popping $40 million weekend haul for the second weekend of January, becoming the first big hit of 2015.
"Run All Night," Neeson's latest and far superior new thriller, plays to more of his strengths as an actor. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously worked with Neeson in the hijacked plane thriller "Non-Stop" and also on the body snatching caper "Unknown," their latest venture sees Neeson, 62, playing former Irish mob hit-man Jimmy Conlon, whose estranged son (he doesn't want to be a crook like his dad) is now in danger from Shawn Maguire, the very man who used to be his capo.
It's a classic western set up in other words, with bad dad protecting his straight-as-a-line son from his fellow hoodlums. Squaring off against Ed Harris's Shawn Maguire (the mob boss and former friend), Neeson and Harris have a chemistry onscreen that makes you believe they have been bosom buddies since their tours of duty in Vietnam.
But when Neeson's son shoots Harris's son after an altercation all bets are off. Old friends become mortal enemies, and the only one who can keep young Mike Conlon (Joel Kinnaman) alive is the father he has spurned for most of his life.
“I've been reading Henning Mankell (the Swedish crime writer) who writes about small town police officers dealing with heinous crimes that are committed,” Neeson tells the Irish Voice. “In an interview he said, ‘The darker the crime, the more it reveals humanity.’”
The darkness at the heart of "Run All Night" encouraged him to sign on to make the film, Neeson says.
“You think of the ancient Greek play. There are parents killing their children, fathers eating their sons, but it reveals so much about all of us, you know?”
There's definitely an old style Western feel to the squabble between outlaw fathers and sons who happen to be armed to the teeth, but there's also a Greek myth aspect too because in the tragedy that follows almost everyone is destroyed.
Not everyone is enamored of Neeson's unexpected success as an action star, though. Last weekend Sean Penn, anxious to carve out his own niche as a gun toting anti-hero, attacked Neeson and Harris as two old baby boomers who can't let go of their glory days. Penn, whose green card joke bombed at the Oscars, snidely referred to "Run All Night" as “Geri-action.”
Brushing off Penn's comments, Neeson arched an eyebrow at the Ritz Carlton press event on Monday. “Geri-action? He can speak for himself. I think I turned that script down actually.”
Besides he doesn't have to take lectures from Penn on how to be a film star (Penn's latest foray, "The Gunman," opening on March 20, is being savaged by the critics and Neeson's is being feted).
“In Hollywood we know they make films for the 14-24 demographic,” says Neeson. “But there's the 24 to mid-80s that a lot of times aren't accounted for, you know? This is just my theory why a couple of these action films appeal to a more mature audience, because they have more mature people in them, you know?”
Asked about the Western structure of "Run All Night," Neeson is enthusiastic.
“These stories tap into a wonderful myth that every culture in the world has about the relationship between fathers and sons, mothers and sons. I've been watching this series "The Vikings" (the Irish-Canadian TV series, filmed in Ireland) and it's good.
“We're Irish. A lot of our myths and legends come from those Nordic tales you know? It's basic humanity. Their actions show us this is where the gods came from. Cold winter nights, fathers can't talk to their sons, sons can't talk to their mothers.
“These sorts of scripts don't get made all that often. I think maybe "State of Grace" (starring Ed Harris) was the last Western type of film set in New York City I can think of.”
The shocking scene where Neeson and Harris' lifelong friendship comes to a permanent stop is one of the highlights of the film.
“It's not entirely surprising to my character because he knows his son is going down the wrong path. He even says he knows the exact moment when his son went wrong,” Harris says.
“When you pick the phone up and you hear the bad news you realize that this relationship (the lifelong friendship between Neeson and Harris' characters) is now over.”
Neeson agrees. “It's a code of honor these guys have. All these types of societies, mafia, the shoguns of Japan, it's a tribal thing. You kill one of mine, I'll kill two of yours. If you don't do it you're disrespecting your enemy, even if he was your best friend.”
Unlike in "Taken" and in most of his recent shoot-em-ups, in "Run All Night" Neeson takes some serious beatings.
“In one big fight I get kicked around, because you have to have some repercussion,” he explains. His character is "a lush who is down on his luck. He's not a superman who can doge bullets."
“The most fun part of making this film was watching Neeson play a drunk Santa Claus,” reveals Harris.
When the film starts, Conlon's heyday is long behind him. He's now a figure of fun, down on his luck and in need of a loan to keep going. That's when he's offered a gig playing Santa Clause, the final humiliation.
“I did have fun playing this part,” says Neeson. “The hardest thing to do is to act drunk. There's a great, great Irish actor – he's dead now – named Cyril Cusack. He was phenomenal, he could play drunk in such a subtle way. I always ask myself, what would Cyril do in this scene? You can so overplay that kind of stuff.”
Neeson, father of two sons with his late wife, actress Natasha Richardson, understands how being a parent transforms a life.
“You don't have to act that, you just have it,” says Neeson. “As a parent your life is changed forever. You carry that like a smell with you. In your work, in your acting, when you're crossing the road, when you're eating in a restaurant, everything is informed by the fact that you're a dad.”
Neeson says he remembers fellow Irish thespian Gabriel Byrne telling him what it felt like to be a dad.
“I was out visiting him many years ago in LA and seeing his little son Jack, this little Greek Adonis, he was 18 months with long blond hair, just this beautiful boy walking around. He's now a blues guitarist, a very successful one,” Neeson recalled.
“I asked him, ‘God Gabriel what's it like to be a dad?’ He said, ‘When he was born I realized my place in the universe.’ I felt the exact same when my son was born. Everything just aligned in some way.”
Asked about the gun violence in the film and in the U.S. (30,000 people a year are shot dead here, after all) Harris is forthright.
“I'm a supporter of the Brady campaign (against gun violence). How effective it is I don't know,” Harris says.
“The National Rifle Association (NRA) is pretty strong here. It's a tough one. I have nothing against hunting, but I don't know why you need a semi-automatic weapon to hunt. That doesn't make any sense to me.”
Neeson, who has come in for a pasting for his stances on gun control recently, stays out of this discussion, instead talking about the way becoming an action star in recent years hasn't really changed his career or the types of roles he's been offered.
“I've only recently come into this action adventure film area so I don't know what I've missed out on,” he says.
“I'm about to go out and play a Jesuit priest in a Martin Scorsese film. A very broken kind of individual. It's about the whole Jesuit Christian push into Japan in the 1700s. I start in April.”
Asked how he keeps in trim for his high octane roles, Neeson remembers the advice of another Irish actor he greatly admires.
“There used to a great old Irish actor called Colin Blakely who I had the pleasure of working with once on a TV play. He was a hero of mine. He was in Laurence Olivier's original National Theatre,” Neeson said.
“He said, ‘Everybody talks about being relaxed. You don't want to be relaxed,’ he said. That's the next step to falling asleep. He said, ‘You want to be poised.’ When they're setting up the lights and you have a scene to do in half an hour just keep your s*** together.”
"Run All Night" opens nationwide on Friday, March 13.