Liam Neeson as Action Man - even at the age of 68 - is still bankable

Liam Neeson and Jacob Perez in The Marksman. Picture: Madman
Liam Neeson and Jacob Perez in The Marksman. Picture: Madman

For those who've been quarantined without access to any media for the past few weeks, a car chase for Liam Neeson's upcoming movie Blacklight was shot in Canberra. One intrepid Canberran, a fervent car fan, set out for a stickybeak at the action. And for one brief shining moment he thought that, from a distance, he saw The Man Himself.

Alas, this was a second unit: Neeson shot his scenes in Melbourne but Canberra doubled for Washington DC as the location for this sequence. "Neeson" turned out to be a stunt driver in a Liam Neeson mask. It's one that would be perfectly serviceable viewed from a distance in motion, but seen up close it's blank and creepy as hell, like the William Shatner mask worn by Michael Myers in the original Halloween.

Blacklight will come in good time. Neeson has a new movie in release, The Marksman. It ticks several Neesonesque boxes: his character is a widowed (tick) retired Marine (tick) sharpshooter (tick) who's given stolen cartel money by a dying Mexican mother to take her young son to family in Chicago. He might or might not bond with the kid, or be forced into violence by bad guys from the cartel who are in pursuit, but which way would you bet?

Obviously Neeson as Action Man - even at the age of 68 - is still bankable: The Marksman opened at the top of the US box office, knocking the Wonder Woman sequel off after the latter's four-week run. Audiences have skewed older and Southern, neither of which is particularly surprising. Who says they don't make movies for seniors any more? Give the folks what they want and they'll turn out for it.

Neeson's latterday turn into action hero is one of those interesting Hollywood career switches - albeit slightly less dispiriting than Robert De Niro slumming in terrible comedies. Like De Niro, Neeson had a long and laudable career with many and varied roles as a serious actor before focusing his efforts largely in one direction.

After he made Taken (2008) in his mid-50s, action movies have dominated Neeson's career, and not, it seems, in a "one for me, one for them" artistic compromise. The Neeson character is an Everyman (albeit a tough one) who does his thing on planes (Non-Stop), trains (The Commuter) and in automobiles (Unknown).

A stuntman in a Liam Neeson mask in Canberra. Picture: Keegan Carroll

A stuntman in a Liam Neeson mask in Canberra. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Over the past decade and a bit Neeson has become a sort of cross between Charles Bronson (who's dead) and Clint Eastwood (who's 90). Neeson might not have made a musical but Eastwood's singing in Paint Your Wagon was nothing special and the man from Northern Ireland is a more versatile actor than either of those predecessors. Can you imagine Eastwood in a kilt as Rob Roy, or in a bowtie as Alfred Kinsey? Or Bronson, whose expressive range was about the same as the abovementioned Neeson mask, as Oskar Schindler or as the caring stepdad in Love Actually?

His first credited film, in 1978, was Pilgrim's Progress, an adaptation of John Bunyan's book, in which he played the role of the The Evangelist.

Neeson had a variety of life experience before acting - he boxed as a teenager, worked for Guinness, and had two stints at tertiary education that didn't seem to take. He hasn't been associated offscreen with the hard-drinking, hellraising Irish stereotype - think Peter O'Toole or Richard Harris or Colin Farrell - and he had a longlasting marriage to actress Natasha Richardson until her tragic death in a skiing accident. But the serious, slightly haunted quality he so often exudes predated that sorrow.

Neeson is one of those actors who jobbed away in film and theatre for years, working his way up to superstardom gradually. He worked steadily as a supporting actor in films such as Excalibur (1981) and The Bounty (1984) but even playing the title role in Darkman (1990), which performed respectably at the box office, didn't put him in the front rank of actors. Still, he was at least known and had built up a respectable body of work including a supporting role in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives (1992). Spielberg was impressed by his performance in a Eugene O'Neill play, Anna Christie, with Richardson, and that landed him Schindler's List, an Oscar nomination, and true stardom.

He's an actor who has done well at projecting intensity and sincerity, useful qualities to ground stories - including his action films - in some kind of reality. Even with the awkward dialogue of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, he managed to maintain his dignity.

Neeson's first credited film, in 1978, was Pilgrim's Progress, an adaptation of John Bunyan's book, in which he played the role of the The Evangelist. Raised Catholic, he's continued to play spiritual roles - priests in The Mission (1986) and Silence (2016), for example. The latter was with director Martin Scorsese. De Niro also worked with Scorsese on The Irishman recently: perhaps both actors wanted to show that, despite all the paycheque movies, they still had their acting chops - and they did.

While it's hard to begrudge Neeson his success with action movies - especially the better ones - here's hoping the actor also continues to play other, more challenging roles. Unlike some action stars who know what they're good at and stick to it (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dwayne Johnson), he can do it, and do it well.

This story Liam Neeson still makes his mark first appeared on The Canberra Times.