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Few actors have a career comparable to that of Liam Neeson. The Irish-born actor didn’t really hit the map until he was nearly 40, yet he’s known as a dedicated and gifted thespian with the chops for an occasional mean streak.
Neeson forged his career on a reputation for playing historical figures including Oskar Schindler, Irish revolutionary Michael Collins and — a little down the road — sexologist Alfred Kinsey. At the turn of the century, he landed a huge role in the “Star Wars” prequels, in hopes of shaking up his images as Mr. Serious.
With a couple big parts in 2005, Neeson began to reinvent himself as the badass we’ve come to know and love (and whom money-hungry studios can rely on). It’s the kind of image change publicists only fantasize about, but it goes to show how truly gifted actors cannot be confined to dramatic fare.
Neeson turns 60 in June, but his career as a (mostly vengeful) action hero seems to have only begun. With The Grey looking to add another successful action credential to his resume, we’ve compiled a list of his most badass roles. Considering his first gig as (1981‘s Excalibur) had him losing a joust and cowardly going back on his word just to save his skin, he’s come a long way.
10. Clash of the Titans (2010) – Zeus
When you ask your agent to land you roles in action films, you’re going to occasionally play in a stinker. On paper, getting to be Zeus, King of the Olympians, in a remake of a classic in Clash of the Titans sounds like a great idea for maintaining your profile as a veteran of cinema’s badasses, but if Neeson knew ahead of time how shiny his armor would be, I think he would’ve reconsidered. How does this make the Top 10 then, you ask? Three simple words:
“Release the Kraken!”
9. Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – Godfrey de Ibelin
Outside of Gladiator, Ridley Scott’s period pieces are not among his most beloved films, but Kingdom of Heaven has a lot of fans that would stand behind it. Although Godfrey’s fate diminishes Neeson’s badassery in this film, he owns a pretty sweet fight scene in the woods after imparting some battle wisdom to his son (Orlando Bloom). He also has a man killed with a war hammer to the skull.
8. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) – Qui-Gon Jinn
Say what you will about the film, but “Phantom Menace” first introduced Neeson to a lot of younger folks at the time (myself included) as he had previously stuck with roles in dramatic, violent R-rated fare. Despite succumbing to Darth Maul, Qui-Gon represents the ideal Jedi, as wise as he is battle-capable. Sure, he was wrong about Anakin Skywalker, but nobody’s perfect …
7. Gangs of New York (2002) – “Priest” Vallon
You might at this point be wondering if Neeson croaks in every film he’s ever been in, but it just goes to show how the man leaves an impression. He doesn’t last more than 20 minutes into Martin Scorsese’s depiction of violent 19th Century New York, but his presence (and the fact that he fights with sword in one hand and cross in the other) makes all the difference. More importantly, his death sets the film in motion as it provides motivation his son (Leonard DiCaprio) to avenge him.
6. The A-Team (2010) – Hannibal Smith
Neeson hasn’t taken many roles based on characters that have previously been portrayed, but he fearlessly creates his own version of the character invented by George Peppard in the ‘80s TV series. Despite the cigar-chomping, Neeson adds a measure of seriousness to both the film as a whole and the dynamic of this team of elite covert ops specialists. Whereas director Joe Carnahan’s film most demonstrates giddy action overkill, Neeson remains one of few anchors.
5. Rob Roy (1995) – Robert Roy MacGregor
When it comes to naming cinema’s best sword fighters, it starts with Errol Flynn, but in the next handful of names you’ll find Liam Neeson. if for no other reason than the sheer volume of times he’s had to pick up a blade — or lightsaber. His role as 18th Century Scottish clan leader Robert MacGregor marks one of his most heroic, and he caps it off with a nice sword duel to the death with actor Tim Roth.
4. Batman Begins (2005) – Henri Ducard
Neeson seems to enjoy the first installments of trilogies it would seem, and he also apparently relishes teaching future warriors everything they know. His pivotal role in Batman Begins set the standard for the gravitas that we have come to expect from Christopher Nolan’s films, this series in particular. Playing Henri Ducard, who later reveals himself as Ra’s al Ghul before promptly burning Wayne Manor to the ground, marked the beginning of Neeson’s true renaissance as an action star.
3. Darkman (1990) – Petyon Westlake/Darkman
Time for a little shout out to Sam Raimi, as his dark superhero revenge tale Darkman placed Neeson on the map. Taking on the mantle of a severely disfigured vigilante anti-hero set the tone for Neeson’s career as a badass, but also as someone dedicated to every part he plays. He’s known as a dedicated role researcher, and for Petyon Westlake he conducted interviews with people who work with recently disfigured people to help them re-enter society.
2. Schindler’s List (1993) – Oskar Schindler
Admittedly, nothing about Oskar Schindler falls under the textbook definition of “badass,” not that a textbook definition exists. Still, Neeson’s lone Oscar-nominated role is one for the ages in a film for the ages. It definitely takes a certain kind of badass to defy the Nazi’s and turn your factory into a refuge for Jews who would’ve otherwise died.
1. Taken (2008) – Bryan Mills
Plenty of prior indicators had evidenced Neeson could be a real badass on film, but Pierre Morel’s Taken played to those strengths better than any of his previous efforts and fully skyrocketed the then-55-year-old’s action career. He’s shown a gift for one-liners and for creating completely believable characters with unrivaled intelligence and physical skill. Taken also surprised at a usually dull January box office and began the trend of winter revenge films that’s still rolling four years later. You can’t ask for much more.