One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 79
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
With the arrival of the assassin thriller Memory in theaters this Friday (April 29), leading man Liam Neeson steps out in his latest “senior action movie,” a subgenre of action films that Neeson himself practically created some 15 years ago in a film that became a surprise, career-changing hit.
Memory, directed by veteran action helmer Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, The Mask of Zorro), is based on the 1985 Belgian novel De zaak Alzheimer by Jef Geeraerts, which was previously adapted into the 2003 Belgian thriller The Alzheimer Case.
The film finds Neeson portraying Alex, a seasoned assassin caught in one of those quagmires that always seems to haunt cinematic hitmen. He refuses to complete a job that violates his personal code, setting off a race for him to hunt down and kill the criminals who hired him before they and the FBI find him first. It sounds like a solid if not overly original story for a hitman flick. The rub here comes in the form of Alex’s faltering memory and other increasing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, which forces the addled assassin to question his every move as the line before between right and wrong begins to blur.
That Neeson’s latest guy-with-a-gun flick has him battling both a cabal of bad or worse guys and the horrors of encroaching Alzheimer’s is undeniably right-on. Neeson is 69-year-old actor who, along with looking his age, can definitely recognize a solid genre when he knows he’s good for it. This must have been instantly clear to him, along with international audiences and studio executives, when, in 2008 at the age of 56, he starred in Taken, the French-produced English language revenge film where he portrayed a retired CIA agent who must gear up and track down his estranged teenage daughter after she is kidnapped.
Based on a script co-written by Hollywood-styled genre filmmaker Luc Besson, (The Professional, La Femme Nikita) and directed by Pierre Morel, Taken was an international smash, grossing $225 million worldwide and catapulting Neeson’s respectable but static film career in a fresh and exciting direction. A pair of inevitable sequels followed—the cleverly titled Taken 2 (2012) and Taken 3 (2014)—along with a number of other revenge-themed action thrillers in which an older guy hits the armory and sets out to right what’s wrong and take down the criminals (or, at least, those who are worse criminals than him).
Of Neeson’s dozen-plus senior action films, there are some good ones (2014’s A Walk Among the Tombstones and Non-Stop, 2019’s Cold Pursuit), some bad ones (2011’s Unknown, 2018’s The Commuter, 2021’s The Ice Road), and some that came and went so quickly they’ve already been forgotten. Blacklight, where Neeson plays a government operative who finds himself on the wrong side of an F.B.I. manhunt, was just released wide to theaters this past February and you probably know as much about it as I do. (Well, I do know that it’s currently available to stream on Amazon and other video on-demand services.)
Of course, Neeson isn’t the first older actor to thrive in the senior action arena, just one of the few that arrived at the party after he had aged into it. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Gibson and Willis are all still banging out action-thrillers, but they’ve been doing those kind of movies since they were at the height of careers. All are in their late 60s or older at this point, and it’s difficult not to compare their recent action entries to the work they did when they were considerably younger men. Where Neeson’s movies differ is that they represent a distinct second act in a respectable career that’s coming up on 50 years and includes lauded performances in such significant films as The Mission (1986), Husbands and Wives (1992), Ethan Frome (1993) and the venerated Schindler’s List (1993).
Neeson also appeared in his share of thrillers and action films prior to his steady engagement with the form over the past 15 years. He portrayed a post-Civil War bounty hunter in the 2006 Western Seraphim Falls a couple of years prior to Taken and the murderous leader of the League of Shadows in 2005’s Batman Begins right before that. And don’t forget his cinematic weapon-wielding in a number of notable efforts made when he was much younger, including A Prayer for the Dying (1987), Michael Collins (1996) and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), where he ran his lightsaber through a phalanx of robot warriors as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn.
Sure, Neeson isn’t the first older guy to appear in an action film one year and then a drama or two a year later. Look at 67-year-old Denzel Washington, who, in just four years, blew away the bad guys in The Equalizer (2014) and The Magnificent Seven (2016), then starred as a hard-working family man in the film adaptation of Lanford Wilson’s stage drama Fences (2016). A year later, Denzel was an idealistic L.A. defense attorney in the legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017), before returning for more gunplay in 2018’s The Equalizer 2. (I don’t have to include his Oscar-nominated turn in last year’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, do I?)
Even as Neeson continues to appear in senior action vehicles that are adjusted and tailored to meet his requirements and skills, he has let it be known that he’s approaching a time when he will move on from the very lucrative and popular subgenre he helped to pioneer.
“I’m 68-and-a-half, 69 this year,” he said of his action films in an interview in early 2021 when he was promoting that season’s entry, The Marksman. “There’s a couple of more I’m going to do this year—hopefully, Covid allowing us—and there’s a couple in the pipeline and then I think that will probably be it. Well, unless I’m on a Zimmer frame or something.”
Unfamiliar with a “Zimmer frame,” I looked it up and learned that it’s actually an aluminum walker. A joke, yeah, but it’s not hard to imagine Neeson turning his Zimmer frame into the most lethal of weapons if the situation demands it.
We’ll check back in a couple of years.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.