In his 30-year career as an actor, Liam Neeson has played his share of priests, rogue Irishmen and sexy professors. He earned an Oscar nomination in 1994 for his portrayal of Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and, more recently, loaned his unmistakable baritone to Aslan the lion in “The Chronicles of Narnia” series. Though he’s played killers and sea captains, Neeson always seemed to underplay his formidable physicality.
He’s 6-foot-4, freakishly tall by Hollywood standards, and he spent much of his childhood in Northern Ireland training as a boxer, ultimately winning a teenage heavyweight championship. But in film, Neeson is often the gentle giant or the villain whose strength is only suggested, rarely demonstrated.
In the bare-knuckled thriller “Taken,” opening Friday, Neeson uses every inch of his physique when taking on the role of a no-holds-barred action hero. His ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills cracks skulls and scales walls, steals cars and generally dispels the common presumption of Neeson as the thinking woman’s sex symbol. There are no cerebral soliloquies here. In “Taken,” Neeson has his Dirty Harry moment.
“Maybe it’s a working class work ethic thing,” said Neeson during a phone call last week, as he watched horse-drawn carriages circle Central Park from the window of his Manhattan apartment. “I like the feeling of physical activity. I feel I’ve done an honest day’s work for an honest dollar.”
The film is co-written and produced by Luc Besson, the French writer-director behind a litany of breathless but cerebral odes to shoot-'em-up action, most memorably 1990’s “La Femme Nikita” and “The Professional,” which marked Natalie Portman’s pre-pubescent debut.
“Taken,” directed by cinematographer Pierre Morel and co-written by Robert Mark Kamen, is often predictable and over-the-top, but the sheer audacity of the stunts and parent’s-worst-nightmare plot makes the revenge thriller irresistibly compelling.
“With somebody else in this character, it may have seemed more frivolous,” said Neeson’s “Taken” costar Famke Janssen. But Neeson, she added, “automatically gives a lot more weight to his character.”
Neeson read the script several years ago when he met Besson at a film festival, and recalled telling the filmmaker at the time: “I’d love to do this film. On one condition: I want to do all the fighting.”
“That’s the only way I’d want you to do it,” he remembers Besson answering.
In the film, Neeson’s character quits the killing game after his years of covert “wet work” ended his marriage and alienated him from his only child. He moves to Los Angeles to be closer to his daughter, played by “Lost’s” Maggie Grace. Janssen is his combative ex-wife.
From there, the plot takes off -- and Grace and Janssen essentially disappear from the film -- after the daughter is abducted during a European vacation by a group of swarthy fellows operating a Paris-based sex slave ring. When the kidnapper grabs the daughter’s cellphone, Neeson growls at him with some of the film’s best lines.
“If you’re looking for a ransom, I can tell you, I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills acquired over a very long career in the shadows, skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it. . . . But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you. And I will kill you.”
From then on, it’s Neeson’s movie. “Taken” has the breakneck pace of an extended episode of the Fox TV series “24,” and Neeson -- with his towering frame, superhero’s jawline and pugilistic intensity -- commands the screen. Granted, it’s not the most original story line (as anyone who has seen Mel Gibson in “Ransom,” or Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Commando,” can tell you), but Neeson keeps the role from veering into camp.
“It appealed to the 16-year-old in me, and it also appealed to the father in me,” Neeson said. “It’s kind of a lovely, no-brainer, slam-dunk little action film with no pretensions.”
The only son in a large Catholic family, Neeson was born in a small Protestant town northwest of Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father was the caretaker of a local school and his mother was an arts lover and a cook. Neeson started acting in community theater around the same time he began training as a boxer. But he gave up the latter when, after a couple of fights, he felt “strangely disembodied.”
Now 56, Neeson still works out using old Russian weights and a punching bag. “I keep pretty fit,” he said. For “Taken,” he spent a month learning a blend of martial arts techniques so he could perform his six complex fight scenes in the film. Morel, whose credits include working with Besson on the popular “Transporter” movies, shot much of the film with a hand-held camera to add intensity. The technique gave the shoot the feel of “guerrilla filmmaking,” said Neeson.
So far, this has been a busy year for Neeson. Last week, he stopped at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, to promote “Five Minutes of Heaven,” in which he portrays a real life former member of a Protestant paramilitary organization. He also recently wrapped “After.Life,” due in October, in which he plays a sinister funeral director.
In late February, he’s off to shoot director Atom Egoyan’s risque “Chloe,” playing a sex-addled husband opposite Julianne Moore. And if Steven Spielberg is good for his word, Neeson will take on the role of Abraham Lincoln for the director sometime soon.
“I like to try to reinvent myself,” said Neeson. “The last thing I want is to sort of be pigeonholed as a performer.”