One of the most significant things to come out of 80’s cinema, for better or worse, was the creation of the quintessential “action hero”. Nearly all of them were maverick, loner cops, soldiers, or agents (and Vietnam veterans) who were short on talk and long on action. Most thumbed their noses at authority and always had a smart-aleky comment waiting in the wings for their superiors. They were either devoted family men or smooth bachelors that women swooned over. Their adversaries weren’t just your average thieves, drug dealers, or murderers, they were psychos. Finally, no matter how much property was destroyed or how many lives were taken during the course of their investigations, they never had a single page of paperwork. Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean Claude Van Damme, and a slew of others played variations of this character in film’s that are watched for their unintentional laughs today. That era of action heroes came to an end in the early 90’s and studios spent the remainder of that decade searching for some star to take the torch. In the end, they never really found one. The 00’s saw the emergence of macho, tough-talking actors like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham, but they have yet to experience a quarter of the success a Stallone or Schwarzenegger did in his prime. Why is this? I think it’s quite clear that shoddy, formulaic action films with superhuman protagonists, like those produced in the 80’s, just don’t fly as well with audiences anymore. Fortunately, there have been some immensely talented actors who, despite not being “action heroes” in the conventional sense, have singlehandedly salvaged the genre in recent years. The most prominent being Liam Neeson.

While it may seem as though Liam Neeson’s status as an action star has come out of nowhere, the seeds where really planted over two decades ago. In the fall of the 1989, the often-forgotten Next of Kin was released. At the time, it appeared to be your average dime a dozen, 80’s action vehicle and, for the most part, it was. Patrick Swayze starred as a no nonsense, Chicago-based cop who gets caught up in a dangerous investigation after his brother Gerald (Bill Paxton) is murdered by mobsters. Despite featuring Swayze, who had just come off the massive success of Dirty Dancing, and decently choreographed set pieces, the formulaic Next of Kin quickly disappeared from theaters and can be found in marked-down bins at most video stores today. However in looking back, Next of Kin did have one thing that helped set it apart from other films in the genre, and that was a surprisingly strong supporting performance from Liam Neeson. Playing Swayze’s blood-thirsty, backwoods brother, Briar, Neeson stole every scene he was in and gave the film a far more compelling figure than it deserved. While Briar certainly wasn’t fully fleshed out, Neeson brought a certain weight and humanity to the role with his physicality and considerable acting chops. That is something other action stars of the era rarely, if ever, did. With that, the die had been cast.

After Next of Kin, Liam Neeson became one of Hollywood’s most disguised and versatile actors, his greatest success coming with his iconic portrayal of Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed Schindler’s List.  In 2005, there was a slight shift in Neeson’s career when he took on the role of  the cunning and destructive Ra’s Al Ghul in Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman franchise, Batman Begins.  Despite being on screen for only a quarter of its running time, Neeson proved he could carry a big-budget, effects-laden blockbuster, going toe-to-toe both mentally and physically with the film’s intense, young star Christian Bale.

In the years since Batman Begins, three films have gone on to solidify Liam Neeson’s place within the action genre, Taken (2008), Unknown (2011), and The Grey (2012). In terms of quality and tone, Taken and Unknown were very similar. Both featured a plentiful supply of gunfire, chases, fights, and illogical plot twists. On paper, they were fairly generic action flicks, no better and no worse. Looking back, it is truly remarkable to see how much Liam Neeson elevated the material on screen with his mere presence. Whether playing desperate father in search of his kidnapped daughter or an amnesiac trying piece together his past, Neeson was a force to be reckoned with, bringing added dimensions of warmth and brutality to characters that could have easily come off as walking cliché’s if put in the hands of a lesser actor.

In many respects, this winter’s The Grey, might be Liam Neeson’s most impressive outing in the action genre yet. With Neeson playing a suicidal sharpshooter who is forced to fight off a viscous pack of wolves while trapped deep in the Alaskan woods, the studios marketed the film as being Taken in the wilderness. In reality, it was anything but that. The Grey was essentially a character study about a man coming to grips with his own mortality. As John Ottway, Liam Neeson was absolutely gripping,  giving us a courageous, flawed, and ultimately tragic hero that we could both relate to and sympathize with. In others words, Ottway was the polar opposite of all those macho, tough-talking 80’s action heroes, which made him all the more compelling.    While I think many fans were surprised by the film’s philosophical tone, there was very little outcry and The Grey opened #1 at the box-office with close to $20 million. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come, with audiences gravitating away from those overblown, formulaic flicks and towards action films for the thinking kind. That would be a major milestone in the action genre’s history and it all will have happened in the hands of Liam Neeson, a classically-trained dramatic actor. Only in Hollywood.