Do you remember when Liam Neeson was an actor? Not a Person Who Regularly Appears in Movies And Gets Paid Well, but an actor — someone whose vocation is to penetrate the artifice of media to touch an elemental, universal part of the human experience and convey it to an audience? He used to do that, you know, with great regularity: films like Schlinder’s List, Nell, Kinsey and Love Actually prove it. There’s a reason why filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott have chosen to work with him. He’s counted on to make giant franchise movies like Star Wars: Episode I, Battleship and Clash of the Titans marginally less shitty just by being there.
He was an actor of substance and range, able to carry a romantic comedy or a historical drama or a sci-fi blockbuster.
Then he made 2008’s Taken — which cost $25 million and made $226 million worldwide — and all of that vanished.
Once we saw him with a gun on his hand, a grimace on his face and a particular set of skills that made him a nightmare for bad guys of randomly nefarious ethnic origin, that was all Hollywood wanted to see him as. (They’d be willing to hear him, though, as Good Cop/Bad Cop in The LEGO Movie and, well, a raccoon in The Nut Job.)
Taken begat Unknown which led to Taken 2 and Non-Stop and this weekend’s Taken 3 which, if the trailers are an indication, will see Neeson sending a decent number of people to the morgue.
While audiences have long preferred their movie stars young and vital — and looking as rugged and hearty as Neeson did in films like Rob Roy and Darkman — there used to be the opportunity for older actors to act. Men like Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, George C. Scott, Charlton Heston all did some of their best work after 50, many even later.
And even the work that wasn’t among their best was still varied. They got to play real characters in dramas and comedies and war pictures and disaster movies. They got to bring their gifts to bear.
You can’t say as much for, say Pierce Brosnan in The November Man (in which he played a highly trained killer drawn out of retirement) or Kevin Costner in 3 Days to Kill (in which he played a highly trained killer drawn out of retirement). They weren’t playing characters, they were playing Geritol Terminators.
It’s hard to put a finger on precisely why this trend has taken hold. Some of the blame can be laid on Hollywood itself, when it decided to stop making movies for adults in the early 2000s. Since 1975, when Jaws came out and defined the modern blockbuster, the film industry has been chasing the over-the-moon high that only comes with massive, obscene excess. Until 2000 or so, that excess success could come via home video. Everything did well on VHS (and, later, DVD) and that money allowed movie studios to take chances on small, interesting movies that would still get stocked on the shelves in Blockbuster.
Hollywood made movies for adults — thrillers, dramas, romances, comedies — because they were all but guaranteed to make their money back. Sure, some of them performed better than others, but the tide had risen so high that everything was lifted.
When the video stores disappeared and that torrential revenue stream dried up, a listless Hollywood turned to franchises for salvation. The studios decided that in was in their best interest was to spend $200 million on one movie in hopes that it would make a billion, rather than spend $30 million on a dozen movies, hoping they each would make $100 million. And the only films that could possibly make a billion are franchises. Giant science fiction movies. Huge superhero movies. Fantasy spectacles. Films that could travel the world and entrance everyone. Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. Spider-Man. The Dark Knight. The Avengers. Avatar.
One could argue that you don’t need “actors” for movies on that scale, save as the hero’s wizened counselor or the scenery-chewing villain, so the actors disappeared. Some ran to TV, others to the stage, others just faded away along with mid-budget cinema.
The Old Man with a Gun is a trope almost as old as movies. Usually it was a Western hero who had to strap his pistols back on, be it John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn in True Grit or Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in The Unforgiven. Death Wish’s Charles Bronson was avenging himself on urban punks in the ‘70s. But Denzel Washington, in 2004’s Man on Fire, gave it a stoic, joyless ruthlessness.
The Oscar-winner was almost 50 when Tony Scott’s south-of-the-border exercise in tenderness and brutality hit theaters. It did well enough at the box office, but more importantly, it both defined a mode for actors of a certain who didn’t want to play put-upon fathers or comic buffoons and offered a life preserver for movie stars who still wanted to be movie stars.
In this phase of his career, Denzel seems to swing between two poles: Glowering Bad Ass (Man on Fire, Book of Eli and Safe House) and Chaperone of Young White Stars (Unstoppable with Chris Pine, 2 Guns with Mark Wahlberg and, yes, Safe House with Ryan Reynolds). On the surface, he’s happy enough to indulge his art on Broadway — doing Shakespeare and Fences and A Raisin in the Sun — and give audiences what they seem to want from old men in the movies. It’s a shame that the kind of movies that built Washington’s career (A Soldier’s Story, Glory, Philadelphia, The Hurricane) couldn’t get made today.
Television is where actresses of a certain age who aren’t Meryl Streep have fled to because that is where the adult drama has found purchase — and there are a few actors (like Kevin Spacey, Clive Owen, James Spader, Paul Giamatti and Kevin Bacon, among others) who’ve followed.
But some movie stars still want to be movie stars, so this weekend we get Neeson in Taken 3 — which is apparently the last of the Takens unless someone decides they want to make more money and then we’ll get 4 Taken 4 Furious.
This is what we’ve done to our best and brightest: turned them into robots.
(This post originally appeared in September 2014.)
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. He is old enough to remember having a cell phone so big you’d think it was used for calling in air strikes. He tweets at @marcbernardin