Magazine | March 21, 2011, Issue

Riding the B Train

Liam Neeson and January Jones in Unknown (Warner Bros.)

In their quest to transform the art of movie hitmaking into something like a science, the major Hollywood studios pay research firms to “track” their films before they open — cold-calling a sample of Americans every week and asking them which movies they’re aware are opening, and which films they’re interested in paying to go see. These numbers are to the movie business what polling is to horse-race politics: They set expectations, establish narratives, and tell the studios how effectively (or ineffectively) their messaging is getting out.

But like presidential exit polls, these surveys have their limits, and they have particular trouble with what you might call the black swans of the Hollywood box office: the mysteries of fanboy buzz, the impact of art-house word-of-mouth — and now the distinctive charms of Liam Neeson, action hero.

Neeson isn’t the first master thespian to develop a sideline in slam-bang B movies, but with 2009’s kidnapping melodrama Taken and this winter’s amnesia melodrama Unknown (sandwiched around a machine-gun-toting turn in last year’s The A-Team), he’s one of the oldest Oscar nominees to go slumming in Jason Statham territory. Pushing 60, all crags and gravitas, Neeson looks ready to spend a comfortable few decades playing aging kings and wise old mentors, with the occasional stentorian voice-over thrown in to pay the bills. Instead, he’s getting in car chases, growling out one-liners (“I didn’t forget everything — I remember how to kill you”), and dispatching bad guys with the facility of an action hero half his age.

And the public loves him for it, well beyond the expectations of the tracking business. Hollywood’s crack researchers had Unknown losing its opening weekend to the weightless sci-fi “epic” I Am Number Four, a glossy attempt to kick-start a teen franchise and make a matinee idol out of its star, the buff and vacant Alex Pettyfer. But the tracking numbers were dead wrong: Neeson’s crags trumped Pettyfer’s pecs, and it was older women (not your typical action-movie crowd, to put it mildly) who contributed an outsize share of Unknown’s take.

The movie they paid to see isn’t particularly good, but that isn’t really the point. The quality of plot and dialogue aside, there’s a distinctive, high-lowbrow thrill that comes with watching a man who’s played Oskar Schindler and Alfred Kinsey tangle with goons in the back alleys of European capitals. Like the $100 million–grossing Taken before it, Unknown demonstrates that with the right casting, a strictly mediocre film can still be an awful lot of fun.

#page#Taken was a completely straight-ahead exercise in American wish-fulfillment, in which Neeson’s ex-CIA dad grimly fought his way through corrupt Parisians and sinister Arabs to rescue his gorgeous daughter from white slavery. Unknown is a bit more complicated: This time, Neeson is an American academic who gets in a car crash while attending a Berlin biotechnology conference and wakes up to find that nobody recognizes or remembers him, and that his place and wife (January Jones) have been usurped by a lookalike (Aidan Quinn). But the Hitchcockian pretensions and the inevitable plot twist — which is ripped off, shamelessly, from a bigger-budget action franchise that shall remain anonymous — is secondary to the main attraction, which is Neeson’s character’s gradually dawning realization that only fists and gunplay are going to restore the life that’s been stripped away from him.

He isn’t the only one having fun slumming. Jones’s and Quinn’s characters are ciphers by design, but Unknown imports the great German actor Bruno Ganz (best known to American audiences as the ranting Hitler in Downfall, and in the million YouTube parodies it spawned) to play an ex-Stasi man turned private investigator whom Neeson turns to for assistance. The movie’s best scene by far is the encounter between Ganz’s crotchety P.I. and the silky-smooth Frank Langella, who cameos as a dubious academic colleague (or is he?) of Neeson’s amnesiac hero. It’s a small, restrained clinic in how good actors can elevate essentially meaningless material into something riveting, and even faintly tragic.

The only problem with highbrow turns in lowbrow entertainments is that their box-office success can make them an addiction, and a trap. Unknown’s boffo opening weekend probably means that there will be more fisticuffs, more grim-faced Americans abroad, and more one-word titles in Liam Neeson’s future. I’m enjoying this phase of his career, and I don’t begrudge him the desire to go a little further down the road to Rambo-dom. But I hope he keeps his eyes open for the signpost marking the place where a self-respecting actor should take stock, and turn back: This way lies the career of Nicolas Cage.

In This Issue



Politics & Policy

It’s Not Just Wisconsin

The knock-down, drag-out fight in Wisconsin isn’t about how much public employees will pay toward their pensions and health-insurance premiums. As union members have loudly insisted, they are willing to ...
Politics & Policy

Real Marriage

It’s the fall of 2006. John Partilla, an Upper West Side advertising executive, meets Carol Anne Riddell, a local news anchor. Like-minded and both brimming with energy, they hit it ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

The Fischer King

Chess plays an important role in the fiction of Lewis Carroll and Vladimir Nabokov, and in the film of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the characters play chess ...
The Straggler

Recycling the Sixties

It starts! January 20, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, passed with little comment, so far as I could judge. Then the public-sector unions of Wisconsin began demonstrating ...


Politics & Policy


Constitutional Nullities Allen C. Guelzo asks “just what it is that modern nullificationists don’t understand about supreme,” referring to Article VI of the Constitution and the “supremacy clause” (“Nullification Temptation,” February 21). What ...

Statuary Sense

For some on the left, the default Republican position on art is generally assumed to be a) hatred of anything that isn’t a crucifixion scene painted by Norman Rockwell, or ...
The Long View

Presidential Daily Briefing

Good Morning, Sir.  The current temperature in Washington, D.C., is 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is roughly 4 degrees in the more universally accepted Celsius scale. The weather today will be sunny, with ...
Politics & Policy


VERISMO – Gentile Bellini, Constantinople, 1480 Perhaps this fits in some Vasari-like Apocrypha? Sultan Mehmet II, They say, presented by Bellini with An oil of John the Baptist’s severed head, Repined: the painting wasn’t true to ...
Happy Warrior

Banzai Bureaucrats

It isn’t easy being a public-sector-union leader these days. “This is beyond insane,” said Steve Smith, president of the Providence Teachers’ Union in Rhode Island, reacting to the city’s latest ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Hillary Ruins the Plan

Editor’s note: Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book is Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. This is the first in a series of excerpts.  There really was a collusion plot. It really did target our election system. It absolutely sought to usurp our capacity for ... Read More

Another Pop-Culture Christian Loses His Faith

It’s happened again. For the second time in three weeks, a prominent (at least in Evangelical circles) Christian has renounced his faith. In July, it was Josh Harris, a pastor and author of the mega-best-selling purity-culture book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This month, it’s Hillsong United songwriter and ... Read More

Max Boot’s Dishonesty

Before yesterday, my primary criticism of the Washington Post’s Max Boot was political in nature. As I wrote in a recent book review, I found it regrettable that Boot’s opposition to the president had not prevented him from “succumbing reactively to Trump’s cult of personality, or from making Trump the ... Read More

A Brief History of Election Meddling

Editor’s note: Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book is Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. This is the second in a series of excerpts. ‘The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Thus spoke President Barack Obama just a couple of weeks before ... Read More

The End of Hong Kong as We Know It

The protests in Hong Kong have been going on for more than four months now, and no matter how the current crisis concludes in the coming days or weeks, it will mark the end of Hong Kong as we know it. The protests started in response to an extradition bill that was proposed by the city’s Beijing-backed ... Read More