Liam Neeson really didn’t believe in "Taken," the first installment of the high octane trilogy that saw him become the later in life action hero Bryan Mills. In fact, he originally thought the 2008 film would fall off the face of the earth, going almost immediately to DVD and never surfacing again, he told the Irish Voice later.
But instead of disappearing it became a turning point in his career that transformed him to an action film star. No one is more surprised about this development than Neeson himself, who’s about as far from his hard man character in real life as it’s possible for an actor to be.
By now we’re all familiar with the basic "Taken" movie formula. Someone dear to Mills (his daughter or his wife) is under threat. That allows him to make his by now catchphrase threat to find them and kill them.
Mills' long-suffering daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) has seen more action in her short lifetime than many veterans of the Iraq War, the poor thing. In fact no sooner does this benighted family gather for a cozy little get together than they’re under attack again.
What the "Taken" films have not been so great at disguising is that the daughter and wife’s real role is as live bait for Mills’ gung ho vigilantism. They provide the paper-thin excuse for the film’s main event: Mills’ license to shoot all the bad guys in increasingly inventive ways.
That formula hasn’t changed in "Taken 3," which Neeson, 62, insists will be the franchise’s last go-round. But this is America and this is Hollywood, where box office receipts can change the mind of even the most principled performer.
If Mills wows once again it will be hard to believe "Taken 3" will be the last we ever hear from him. Scripted by director Luc Besson, the "Taken" franchise has been an unexpected smash, pulling in over $600 million. A third go round was inevitable.
“I was not keen on doing a third, I will be honest with you,” Neeson told the press recently. “I remember saying, ‘If anyone gets taken I’m not doing it, you can’t insult the audience with this. A third time?’
“But Luc Besson and [writer] Robert Mark Kamen came up with a very good storyline and then it was consolidated when we got Forest Whitaker on as my ballast, equal and opposite. I was thrilled when we got Forest. He is a heavyweight actor. He is terrific you know. He’s got a great screen presence and is a worthy adversary.”
This time Neeson’s daughter isn’t taken, but she’s still under threat – as he is himself – from both the authorities and a group of vodka-quaffing Russian style mobsters alternatively motivated by revenge and money.
But the addition of Academy Award winner Whitaker as seen it all cop Frank Dotzler, in a role where he ad-libs and creates many of his own scenes to offset a script that already includes some macho howlers, is the film’s masterstroke. This laconic pair are a match made in cinema heaven and their chemistry carries the film.
But there’s even more to Mills’ appeal than the film’s basic shoot em’ up thrills, Neeson believes. In fact there’s a particularly Irish (and global) context that could help explain why his character became such a worldwide hit. A lot of it comes down to timing, he explains.
“In 2009 (when first "Taken" was released) the world was turned upside down by financial guys shafting us all. We didn’t know who or what to believe anymore, where were our pillars of ethics,” Neeson said.
“Savings were not safe and old age pensioners audiences really responded to that not-take-this-bulls*** anymore. That’s my logic on one of the reasons why it was very successful because it tapped into why people, vulnerable and scared of our leaders, tired of being shafted.”
It’s hard to miss the Irish dimension to Neeson’s appraisal, and indeed in recent weeks the Irish actor has made that link explicit. Revealing a side to him that’s as direct and unmistakable as his tough guy character, Neeson last month said he reconsidered his own plans to move home to Ireland now that his two teenage sons Daniel and Michael have moved away to college.
But since the Irish government introduced controversial new water charges Neeson has soured on the idea. “We've been f***ed from a great height by these bankers and it's the final straw," he told the press.
“To tax people for their water. Just wrong. I’ve always thought about coming home, especially now with my empty nest, but this is just insulting. It turns me completely off. I just think, ‘Come on, don't f***ing insult the Irish people any more.’ It's terrible.”
Neeson added, "I really hope the government is doing something about it now and listening to the people and finding a solution. They f***ing better listen to the opposition.”
The "Taken" films have strongly resonated in the U.S. too, often with dire consequences for European travel prospects. Neeson confirmed that he received letters from anxious Americans who, thanks to his films, are now too scared to travel to Europe.
“Just the other day, I got a letter from a schoolteacher in Texas who had tried to take 60 students to Europe, and the families of 40 of them got the kids out of it because they had seen 'Taken 2,'” Neeson said.
“And then this year, she wanted to take 20 of them, and the parents all said, 'No, because we've seen that movie!’” he added.
There’s a refreshing Irish candor about Neeson’s take on his own character that’s unlike anything a career conscious American actor might admit.
“The way I see it, this came to me relatively later than most and I've been having a blast. I'm an ex-boxer and I’ve been shooting these physical scenes with amazing fight choreographers. I've been like a kid in a toy shop.”
But it’s coming time to call time on these knockabout capers, no matter how much box office mojo they possess, he insists.
“There's probably a couple more films in there. I'll give it two more years and I'm out. I'm 62 for God's sake,” Neeson says.
“And then, yeah, comedy,” he adds. “A couple more would be good. I did "A Million Ways to Die In the West" (with "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane) and had a great time. I like to laugh. Who doesn't like to laugh?” he adds.
But with the eye-popping box office receipts the "Taken" franchise generates, we might first see "Taken the Musical," "Taken at Christmas," and "Taken the Irish Dance Show" though. As Sean Connery once said of his old James Bond role, never say never again.