Taken with Liam Neeson

By Levitt, Shelley | Success, February 2015 | Go to article overview

Taken with Liam Neeson


Levitt, Shelley, Success


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From Schindler's List star to an action hero, Liam Neeson is one of Hollywood's most likable and bankable actors. As Taken 3 hits the screen, he opens up about how he keeps going, even in the face of unbearable loss.

January is the dumping month for movies. Any film with award aspirations has been released during November and December to qualify for Oscar nominations, while tentpole pics hit screens during the blockbuster-making holiday season. Those first few weeks of the year are when movies that have gotten lousy scores in test screenings or have been gathering dust on studio shelves get their day, with the expectation that they'll hang around theaters no longer than the popcorn sticking to the floor.

The box office takes the deepest dive on Super Bowl weekend, so it was a Hail Mary pass when on Friday, Jan. 30, 2009--two days before nearly 100 million Americans would watch the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Arizona Cardinals--20th Century Fox released Taken. The action flick had a paltry budget of S25 million and a familiar revenge plot--former CIA agent Bryan Mills sets out to rescue his daughter when she's kidnapped in Paris by a gang of sex traffickers. "That release date took guts," says Paul Dergarabedian, a box-office analyst for Rentrak, a provider of viewership data, "ft went against the grain. What you typically see opening on Super Bow l weekend are romantic comedies that are aimed at a female audience." Even the movie's star, a then 56-year-old Liam Neeson, had thought that the movie--what he describes as a "very, very basic, simple storyline"--would stay under the radar.

It didn't. Opening on some 3,200 screens, Taken nabbed the No. 1 spot at the box office, earning a remarkable $24.7 million. Even Fox Chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos was astonished. "We'd screened the film and went. Wow, this is really great," Gianopulos says. "The release calendar gets very crowded during the holiday season, and while we knew what we had, we also knew we needed word-of-mouth for the movie to get momentum. So we weren't surprised that the movie turned out to be a success, but we were very surprised by the extent of it that first weekend."

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Taken would go on to earn $145 million in domestic box office receipts and nearly $84 million internationally, making Liam Neeson an action star and giving rise to a franchise. Three years later in Taken 2, protagonist Bryan Mills and his estranged wife (Famke Janssen) are kidnapped in Istanbul. That film would earn $376 million worldwide. And on Jan. 9, the final Taken installment opens; this time Mills is on the run after being framed for the murder of his ex. Neeson, 62, is one of Hollywood's highest-paid stars, on track to earn a reported $50 million for Taken 3. "I laugh at it," he says. "It's not that I laugh at the franchise itself or the position I find myself in. I just laugh at the ridiculousness of life."

At 6 feet 4 inches, with the slightly off-kilter features of the amateur boxer he once was (he broke his nose in a match at 15), Neeson always had the rough-hewn good looks of an action hero. If it's improbable that it took until late middle age for him to achieve that mantle, Neeson says that timing is just right. Had Taken come along in his 20s or 30s, he says he would have screwed it up (he uses a saltier word), and typecasting might have made it difficult for him to be believable playing the towering historical figures that have defined him as one of the greatest actors of his generation.

"I certainly wouldn't have been able to do Schindlers List or Rob Roy or Michael Collins," he says. Besides, he adds, "I think that what added to the popularity of Taken was the fact that I'm an elder guy. I'm a father, so I can totally empathize with how Bryan Mills reacts when his kid is in danger. I think that comes across." What's left unsaid is that audiences also know Neeson has dealt with a devastating loss--the death of his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, after a 2009 skiing accident. …

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