ONCE again Liam Neeson is going out to pummel bad guys and relentlessly crack heads – settling scores, he says, so that you don’t have to.
“The first Taken gave people a real guilty pleasure,” says Neeson, as he stretches about three foot of leg under our hotel room table. “The world had been turned upside down financially. Our elected leaders, the so-called pillars of society, bankers and managers, were f***ing shafting us, and everybody felt vulnerable and scared.”
Somehow his ex-CIA operative relentlessly taking out every villain who stood between him and his kidnapped daughter struck an emotional chord with audiences across the world. “You see someone in trouble, and he’s going to do something about it himself,” continues Neeson. “I think people went, ‘Yes, I wish I could do that!’ ”
At the time it was expected to be nothing more than a B-grade action-thriller, but instead Taken became a runaway international hit – one of the biggest in Neeson’s career. “It came out in France first, and it was reasonably successful, and the next territory was Korea, where it was phenomenally successful,” recalls Neeson. At this point, however, it also attracted the attention of one of Hollywood’s modern headaches – the pirate. Neeson’s nephews in Britain and Ireland called him to congratulate him on his badass fighting in the film.
“I said, ‘You can’t have seen Taken, it hasn’t opened yet.’ And they said, ‘Uh, it’s on the computer.’ Downloaded. I remember thinking ‘Pffft, that’s the end of that, it’s finished.’ ” In fact, Taken went on to take more than £200 million worldwide, which is why, unsurprisingly, Neeson is back in a Taken sequel, though the reason for the three-year gap is because he took some coaxing from the film’s producer/creator Luc Besson. “They came to me and said, ‘We want to do Taken 2,” Neeson says. “I said, “What? She’s taken again? What will we call it? Taken For A Ride?”
Certainly the production team has held on to the film’s favourite tropes: a daughter (Maggie Grace) seeking independence; a wistful ex-wife (Famke Janssen), European kidnappers and a lot of chasing and fighting. Neeson’s Bryan Mills even wears the same battered leather jacket (“He loved that jacket,” confides his director Oliver Megaton. “I had to say, ‘You cannot wear it from the start of the film, Liam.’ ”) Most importantly, Neeson transforms once more from over-protective family man to revenge machine, complete with a speech to rival Bryan’s much-loved, and now much-parodied revenge phone message that concluded, “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
“Bryan reminds me of a guy who trained me to fight with weapons a few years ago,” says Neeson. “He’s a special operatives soldier, actively going into Afghanistan or Uzbekistan. I don’t see him for a couple of weeks, then he’ll call me – ‘Hi, fancy a drink?’ – and he’s bandaged here or there, but he can’t talk about what he’s done, other than broad, broad outlines. If he walked down the street you wouldn’t pick him out in a crowd. But the stuff he gets up to is breathtaking.”
Neeson turned 60 this year, a rare example of an actor whose roles get more physical as he gets older. Between the ages of nine and 17 he trained as a boxer, and despite breaking his pelvis in a motorbike accident ten years ago, he has always maintained a fitness regime, balanced with a glass or two of his favourite red wine. Even so, he doesn’t bounce off a fist like he used to. “It starts to hurt,” he says in mock complaint. “The knees creak a bit more too, but I could use that in Taken 2 because by the end of the film we have two people getting tired. It’s not superhero stuff, it’s ugly.”
This time, the location has moved from Paris to Istanbul, where he also did some of the driving stunts “which was difficult because a lot of the streets we shot in were thousands of years old and as narrow as this room, with shops on either side and merchants selling their wares. So you’re doing a car chase at 50, 60mph, and the local people go ‘No, no, no. I’m not closing my shop. You do your movie, I sell my wares.’ You never knew who was going to pop out of a shop, and we smashed a few Mercedes. They got chewed up big time.”
Is there any other actor who can be as physically intimidating as Neeson – let’s not forget that in The Grey, he punched a wolf in the face – yet also plausibly play Ivy League professors like Kinsey too? Neeson is also comfortable playing both gods and monsters, and that craggy profile means he’s got quite a lot of deities and legends on his CV, including Aslan in the Narnia films, and stentorian Zeus in Clash Of The Titans and its sequel, unleashing the Krakan with a commendably straight face.
In interviews Neeson can be slyly subversive, mocking any sign of actorly ego. In the best episode of Ricky Gervais’ Life’s Too Short, he finally got a chance to show this side of himself on screen too. Arriving in Gervais’s office, he earnestly produces a list of comedy styles he wanted to conquer (“I’m always making lists – that’s why Spielberg wanted me for Schindler’s List”), and pushes Gervais into a hopelessly uncomfortable improv workshop where every punchline supplied by Neeson is either “cancer” or “Aids”.
“Ricky gave me a couple of timing notes, which were mainly ‘when I say this, don’t answer immediately – just give it a couple of beats,’ ” he says. “But I knew the more serious I was, the funnier this was going to be.”
Raised Catholic in Northern Ireland’s largely Protestant Ballymena, Neeson was interested in drama from school age but his first international break came when John Boorman saw him act at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and cast him as Sir Gawain in his Arthurian movie adaptation, Excalibur.
In the 80s, he chased small roles in American movies such as Suspect and The Bounty with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, but it wasn’t until he turned 40 that Hollywood recognised him as a fine character actor. Steven Spielberg cast him as the roguish Oskar Schindler, whose charm and a wracked conscience in Schindler’s List earned Neeson a best actor Oscar nomination. Since then, he’s contributed to both hits and misses without ever denting his allure. When he played a Jedi Master in George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones, the fans’ dissatisfaction did not extend to his Qui-Gon Jinn.
He’s more at ease with culty blockbusters nowadays. Ten years ago I remember him pleading with me to “ask about anything you want, but not Star Wars”; now he’s happy to talk about his brief appearance as Batman’s former mentor Ra’s al Ghul in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises.
“I was on set for two hours, and at the end Chris said, ‘Oh, don’t tell anyone you were here.’ In front of a crew of 300.
“I said, “Well, I’m not going to say anything but those 300 guys might!” I’m in it for 15 seconds, right? I haven’t had a chance to see it yet.”
Neeson takes nothing for granted, neither in films nor in life. His wife Natasha Richardson died in New York in 2009, after being severely injured in a skiing accident three days earlier in Quebec. Since this tragedy, he has been busier than ever but says his schedule is based around his teenage sons Michael and Daniel. “Being a single parent is a juggle, but it’s great to be offered the work,” he says, simply. “One of my dearest friends is a fantastic actor on stage and on screen. Yet he hasn’t worked in five years.”
Neeson’s boys sometimes influence his film choices – he admits to hesitating over signing up as the voice of Aslan in the Narnia films until his eldest son exclaimed, “But Dad, he’s God.” And Taken has been a huge hit among their friends. “They say ‘Mr Neeson, could you leave a message on my iPhone?’ ” Presumably, he gets a lot of requests for Bryan’s terse “I will kill you” speech.
Neeson laughs, delighted to puncture a myth one last time: “Nah! Out in the street it’s usually, “Hey, Liam? Release the Kraken!” «
Taken 2 is on general release from Thursday.