Liam Neeson's Very Special Skills

When it comes to acting, Steven Seagal is to Liam Neeson what White Castle burgers are to a downtown steakhouse dinner: an acceptable alternative, if you have no other choice and hold your nose, and perhaps possessing of a certain kitsch value, but thoroughly inferior by any standard, perhaps even just plain old lousy. Yet other than his general flatness of effect, it can be difficult to say just what, exactly, it is about Seagal that makes him a third-rate performer. Quantifying the difference between great acting and terrible acting is tough; it’s even tougher to explain the differences between a fine actor and a mediocre one.

No one’s going to be able to graph the differences between great and rotten acting any time soon, so we have to rely on comparisons. Taken, the just-released Liam Neeson revenge flick, provides us with the opportunity to engage in an illuminating thought experiment: Imagine the same movie, but with Seagal in the lead.

If you haven’t seen Taken (and if you’ve ever been a fan of rock-‘em-sock-em guilty pleasure revenge flicks, I highly recommend it), it’s a formulaic tough-guy revenge picture: the sort in which it’s not possible to imagine the protagonist wearing anything other than black jeans and a leather jacket, the sort in which deadly professional skills are inevitably employed in a decidedly personal way, the sort that can almost always be summed up as “one man, one mission, dozens of dead thugs.”

In this case, Neeson plays an ex-government operative whose teenage daughter is kidnapped and sold into Europe’s underground sex-slave market. The movie is short, ultra-violent, occasionally sadistic, not particularly creative, and packed with a continent’s worth of stereotypical foreign uglies.

In other words, it’s the sort of role that for years has been Seagal’s bread and butter. Yet somehow, unlike most of Seagal’s trashy rehashes, it’s also tremendously exhilarating and entertaining. Why? Well, as far as I can tell, nearly all the credit is due to a genuinely captivating performance by Liam Neeson.

Part of it is just the way he carries himself. He’s retired, separated from his wife, and none too close with daughter, and he says it all just in the way he walks, stalking through the film like a lion king cast out from his tribe — powerful, but still an outsider. It’s a far cry from what you’d have seen with Seagal in the role: Despite being a martial artist, Seagal always seems vaguely bothered with having to move; Neeson strides through the film with a mix of menace and lumbering soulfulness. Seagal’s face comes off as bored, smirky, inexpressive; Neeson shifts between forlorn father and determined seeker of vengeance as nimbly as a dancer. Seagal’s eyes are squinty; Neeson’s are intense. Neeson appears to have a soul, a mind, a heart; Seagal’s barely more convincing than a robo-mannequin.

Still, it’s in the line readings that Neeson shines most. His special gift is to be able to take ludicrous, plodding dialog and make it absolutely riveting: He’s often the only thing that keeps movies from total failure. Think back to The Phantom Menace. George Lucas writes lines that seem primarily designed to provoke as many different styles of cringe from his audience as possible. In TPM‘s two sequels, Hayden Christensen was rendered helpless by Lucas’s tin ear. Yet Neeson remained dignified, even compelling, despite the parade of clunkers he was given to work with.

Even strong movies like Batman Begins are greatly aided by Neeson’s talents. Neeson’s mentor character, Ducard, dominates the first act, and may be more memorable than Bale’s Bruce Wayne. Yet he does it with little more than duds like this:

The training is nothing! Will is everything! The will to act.

And:

Like you, I was forced to learn there are those without decency who must be fought without hesitation, without pity. Your anger gives you great power. But if you let it, it will destroy you… as it almost did me.

This stuff is hammy, obvious, cliched — and Neeson makes it potent all the same.

Taken ought to have been a z-grade action-junkie fix, at best. Yet it’s one of the purist, most exciting entertainments I’ve seen in months. Arguably, it’s still a bad movie, but Neeson’s clever, compelling performance shows that even in formulaic schlock, a little art goes a long way.