Photo: Lionsgate
Together AgainWith Together Again, Jesse Hassenger looks at actors and directors who have worked together on at least three films, analyzing the nature of their collaborations.  

When Taken turned Liam Neeson into an action star circa 2009, he was both surprisingly believable as a badass and surprisingly old for being so believable. Though the 6-foot, 4-inch Neeson certainly cuts an imposing figure, there are plenty of reasons he shouldn’t come off as such a remarkable action hero: He’s not a particularly agile or acrobatic physical performer (at least not in the balletic martial-arts mode, or even iconographic Keanu Reeves mode) and, on the other end, he wasn’t really all that amazingly old when he filmed Taken (in his mid-50s, around the same age Tom Cruise is now, or around the same age Clint Eastwood was when he last played Dirty Harry—in a movie co-starring one Liam Neeson!).

But Neeson made sense as an experienced practitioner of deadly force due to his substantial onscreen history as a mentor to the likes of Batman, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Dead Rabbits of Old New York, and whoever Orlando Bloom played in Kingdom Of Heaven. At last, the teacher of ass-kickers had become the kicker of asses.

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Taken capitalized on Neeson’s accrued gravitas and audience goodwill, giving him an entire movie-star career consisting of both Taken sequels and movies designed to look like Taken knockoffs. But just as the Taken films are a de facto update of vigilante-justice series like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, Neeson’s non-Taken semi-action movies place him in modern versions of less grimy, more classical B-movies. This is particularly true of Neeson’s four collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra, who has dedicated his career almost exclusively to the lost art of the low-to-mid-budget B-picture. In Neeson, Collet-Serra has found his paradoxical movie-star everyman, a towering punch machine who nonetheless looks—in their movies together, anyway—as if he could crumple under stress at any time.

If Taken’s Bryan Mills could probably, in his even-later years, provide training to Batman or a Jedi, the Neeson characters of Unknown (2011), Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015), and The Commuter (2018) are wearier, more earthbound men. That weariness and weight increases as Collet-Serra and Neeson continue their partnership. In Unknown, Neeson’s Dr. Martin Harris is unburdened with a drinking problem, a wayward family, or the collapse of the American middle class. At first, he’s just typically puzzled, if resourceful, when he wakes up in a hospital without any identification and is told that he’s not the “real” Dr. Martin Harris.

Eventually, the movie builds a bridge between Neeson as a Hitchcock-style wrong man and Neeson as a Taken-style mayhem machine. But at this point in Collet-Serra’s career, it looked downright restrained: foot chases, international intrigue, no gory deaths. Pre-Neeson, the Spanish-born director made a couple of horror movies and one movie about soccer (presumably as genetically required by his European heritage). Perhaps spurred on by the considerable presence of his star in a way that he wasn’t by House Of Wax’s Paris Hilton, Unknown is his first movie to fully let loose his inner dime-store Hitchcock, with an irresistible premise equal parts wrong-man thrillers and the single-season UPN television series Nowhere Man.

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Unknown also establishes a hallmark of the Collet-Serra/Neeson films: at least one scene, sometimes several, where Neeson’s man of action is manipulated into sounding like a raving lunatic. This happens as he attempts to reclaim his identity early in Unknown, as he attempts to control the panicking passengers on board an airplane he’s being framed for hijacking in Non-Stop, and as he searches for a mysterious train passenger in The Commuter. (Run All Night, as will be discussed soon, is something of an outlier.) These rants, the best of which is Non-Stop’s combination Catholic confession and mission statement (“I’m not a good father! I’m not a good man! But I’m not hijacking this plane, I’m trying to save it!”), function, intentionally or not, as riffs on that famous scene in Taken where Neeson growls his plainspoken threats into a cell phone. Crucially, they imitate the conviction of the moment, but not the authority; there’s often a slight tremble detectable in Neeson’s formidable, Aslan-speaking voice. In Taken, Bryan Mills, however temporarily bested, is turning the tables on kidnappers by asserting his dominance, his “particular set of skills.” In Collet-Serra’s movies, Neeson isn’t just outnumbered by anonymous thugs; he’s barking against his powerlessness. His skill sets are less impressive: smoking cigarettes in airplane bathrooms in Non-Stop; making small talk in The Commuter.

None of these four movies are quite smart (or trippy) enough for a wholehearted description of “psychological thriller,” but Collet-Serra does attempt to get into Neeson’s characters’ head-spaces, looking at their powerlessness from inside and out. A scene in Unknown where Dr. Martin Harris witnesses a murder while doped up and restrained in a hospital, then attempts to reach a possible weapon in his limited state, wrings a lot of suspense from Neeson in shallow-focus close-up, struggling to stay awake. Non-Stop uses exaggerated shallow focus again as alcoholic Air Marshall Bill Marks makes his way through an airport in a haze. The Commuter has plenty of tense close-ups and tight spaces—at one point the gigantic Neeson is crammed into a compartment under the train’s floor—but it also externalizes the experiences of his character, Michael MacCauley, as a working commuter and weaves them into a mystery told mostly in real time: the empty car without AC, the eavesdropping on others’ conversations, even the specific punch-marks on train tickets become cat-and-mouse fodder.

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It’s a given that Neeson can bring gravity to these pulpy scenarios, but Collet-Serra still has the ability to surprise, less with his film’s plot twists (which are often, if not purely nonsensical, let’s say sub-convincing) than with his attention to detail. The Commuter opens with one of his best sequences yet: an elegantly edited montage of Neeson’s family’s morning routine, traversing years of wake-ups, breakfasts, and drives to the local Metro North station. Not only does this provide efficient, exposition-light backstory, it has moments that are touching in their emotional brevity, like a series of shots of Neeson and his wife in the car together that cycles through warmth, sadness, anger, and good humor with little specific context. In a matter of minutes, the film turns a major movie star into a convincingly regular guy.

When The Commuter literally jumps the rails with a horrendous-looking train crash, it’s tempting to write it off as yet another Hollywood movie choosing CG fire and fury over its better instincts, not unlike the over-the-top plane action of Non-Stop. But these heedless leaps are also part of Collet-Serra’s aesthetic; he’s a fascinating hybrid of old-fashioned craftsman and jumped-up, shamelessly sensation-driven music-video huckster. He likes both snaky long takes (put to especially good use in Non-Stop) and cheesy computer-augmented simulations of long takes (like a zip through the full length of the Commuter train), and sometimes appears to be stitching them together as needed.

Even at its chintziest, Collet-Serra’s work has a slick confidence many bigger-budget thrillers lack, and they’re enhanced when he gets to focus on a clear star. (Has Blake Lively ever been better than she is in The Shallows?) His best movies build their ludicrousness carefully, using a compelling performer to lead the audience into a singly sublime master moment, like the shark emerging from the ocean on fire in The Shallows or the insane revelation that powers the climax of Orphan. In Non-Stop, it’s the trailer-perfect moment where Neeson grabs a gun from mid-air as the plane rights itself, then shoots as he flies backward through the cabin.

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Run All Night doesn’t build in the same way, though it does feature a wonderful gun-barrel’s-eye-view shot of a weapon twirling confidently into Neeson’s hands during its climax. It’s the odd movie out here, in that it’s the only one of these four that doesn’t resemble B-level Hitchcock and/or a relatively sexless Brian De Palma. Sandwiched between Neeson haranguing the airplane passengers of Non-Stop and Neeson hassling the train passengers of The Commuter, Run All Night is a little confusing for not taking place primarily within the confines of a taxi or a subway system. But it’s a halfway decent approximation of an old crime picture, and an impressive departure from Collet-Serra’s strengths in its content if not always its style: The movie has a grungier sense of place than the other three, but it still organizes its grit with a series of computerized zooms through Google Maps-like exteriors.

The actors, Neeson included, feel more sunken into their roles than usual for Collet-Serra players, who are often skillful but very movie-ish, befitting their frequent status as a roll call of potential suspects. In Run All Night, there aren’t really suspects. Neeson plays Jimmy, a former hitman who must protect his estranged son (Joel Kinnaman) from his former boss (Ed Harris), and apart from the conflicting loyalties at play, there isn’t much space for twists or turns. This is a grimmer, more mournful sorta-action movie, with bloody shoot-outs in addition to the fast-cut close-quarters fights.

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Through it all, Run All Night still shares a little with its siblings; like Non-Stop, it positions Neeson as a neglectful and alcoholic father, and without as much self-aggrandizement as his Taken dad, whose movie series essentially validates his every stupid thought. From an actor’s perspective, Run All Night is probably “better” material for Neeson than Unknown, Non-Stop, or The Commuter. He gets to tap into the guilt and regret of a career criminal, and act opposite Ed Harris rather than a group of glorified bystanders goggling at his fierce conviction. The two stars have a scene together at a restaurant that feels especially lived-in. But the ancillary drama of Run All Night never fully jells with Collet-Serra’s instinct for pulpy showmanship, the kind that demands Common play a remorseless super-assassin who fights Neeson in a burning building. As such, this is the only Collet-Serra/Neeson collaboration where the actor and director’s sensibilities feel a little bit at odds.

It would be compelling to see the two of them continue to try further experiments with additional B-movie subgenres, but it’s hard to hope for more Run All Nights when a movie like The Commuter offers such a satisfying exercise. The Commuter’s initial, vaguely Hitchcockian moral quandary—what if a stranger approached you and offered you a large cash payment to perform a seemingly nonviolent act against a stranger?—doesn’t get much of a workout. Though the movie spends a lot of time setting up its characters as financially gutted, it makes an abrupt, even careless turn into righteous wrong-man-wrong-time-endangered-family narrative. Non-Stop is just as cornball, but it’s the only one that takes Neeson on a credible, coherent moral journey.

Then again, Neeson has been in plenty of movies that take him on credible, coherent moral journeys, and with a filmography that includes Spielberg and Scorsese, Star Wars and Batman, Alfred Kinsey and Love Actually, it’s safe to say his legacy is intact for future generations. Jaume Collet-Serra is now his most frequent collaborator unless you count his bit parts for various Seth MacFarlane projects, and though Neeson has repeatedly debated leaving action movies behind, in a way he already has. Collet-Serra’s movies have action in them, even use certain action moments as emblems for the entire project, but they get just as many kicks from constructing little B-movie worlds around their imposing star. So far, Neeson has always thrown punches in them, but he doesn’t necessarily have to. By the end of the Taken series, Taken 3 was taking cues from Collet-Serra’s Hitchcock knockoffs, with Bryan Mills framed for murder and on the run. Regardless of whether the late-blooming movie star wants to quit punches and explosions for good, hopefully Neeson and Collet-Serra can get themselves on a mid-sized boat by January 2021.

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