At the beginning of 2009, after nearly three decades of making movies, Liam Neeson had exactly one $20-million opening as as a leading man (1999's "The Haunting," in which he shared top billing with Lili Taylor). Since 2009, though, he's done it a remarkable three times.
The latest example came this weekend with a $20-million opening for "The Grey," which follows the success of "Taken" in 2009 and "Unknown" in 2011.
It's hard to know what makes an actor suddenly emerge as a box-office draw after years in the trenches, but Neeson is one of the more interesting case studies out there. Though just a few months away from hitting the big 6-0, the actor has created an unlikely brand as a crusading vigilante. The enemy in his films, of course, doesn't really matter -- shadowy global assassins, Eastern European thugs, wolves. Nor, for that matter, does the cause -- it simply has to be nominally just and involve the survival of him and/or the people he cares about.
It just all has to happen against a film-release backdrop of, well, not much. Try Neesoning in a summer movie and watch your film disappear. But in January and February the actor somehow plays big and believable.
Cinematic historians will look at "The Grey," "Taken" and "Unknown" as a vein for surprisingly rich exploration. (Charles Bronson’s estate may want to have a look too.) The specter of a man raging successfully against a system rigged against him certainly appeals to males, especially older ones, giving cultural and feminist theorists plenty to write about.
It's hard to overlook the special-effects factor. There's something about seeing a middle-aged man pummeling, running and panting in a movie these days, what with CG-driven tent poles offering well-coiffed manchildren who stand back and let the engineers do all the work.
In fact, if you really want to go for it, you can look at Neesonmania through the prism of the working man and the 99% -- in some ways, a little like Neeson himself, who has been toiling for years and also suffered a humanizing tragedy when his wife died in early 2009, just as his comeback was beginning.
"Fill me with only what I need to fight," Neeson intones in "The Grey." His movies, even to their staunchest defenders, aren't really filled with much more. Yet somehow they leave us more than satisfied.
Photo: Liam Neeson in "The Grey." Credit: Open Road