Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Irish Nicolas Cage?

Okay, who's excited for Liam Neeson's slate of upcoming movies in 2012?

That would be:

Wrath of the Titans
Taken 2

Don't answer all at once.

Fortunately, I've already seen his first 2012 movie, The Grey, and I can tell you it's pretty good.

The rest of them ... well, if it were Nicolas Cage playing those same roles, don't you think he'd take some crap?

It should be obvious to anyone reading this why Liam Neeson is a cut above Nicolas Cage. But I think we need to take a look at it more closely.

Cage doesn't seem to turn down any roles. Lately, neither does Neeson.

Cage is a former Oscar winner who's acted in a bunch of big-budget crap. So is Neeson.

Cage often plays a character who was wronged and has come to kick some ass. So does our Teflon Liam.

Yet Neeson is teflon -- none of these decisions ever stick to him. No one ever says "What crap is Liam Neeson making now?"

This realization about Liam Neeson occurred to me when I was in the grocery store tonight. The DVD for The A-Team was at the checkout stand, begging someone to buy it for the bargain price of just $19.99.

Now, I actually liked The A-Team. But it doesn't mean seeing that movie there on that rack didn't make me say "Man, that Liam Neeson sure does make some schlock."

Shall we go on? Neeson's period of craptitude may go back to 2009, when the first Taken came out. That's when he developed the reputation of a guy appearing in vigilante thrillers who might want to kick someone's ass ... much like the reputation Cage has. Appearing in Unknown in 2011 surely helped Neeson further down that path, such that when the trailers for The Grey came out, people were joking "Hey, it's that movie where Liam Neeson punches a wolf in the face." Sure, such a moment was actually alluded to in the trailer -- but it doesn't mean people weren't thinking of the Neeson who delivered that "I will hunt you down, I will find you and I will kill you" speech in Taken. Except this time he's making that threat to a wolf.

Like Cage, Neeson has also gotten himself entrenched in a number of high-profile series. While Cage has been the face of such series as National Treasure and Ghost Rider, Neeson has been busy popping up everywhere from the Star Wars prequels (well, just one) to the Chronicles of Narnia movies. And oh yeah, he's also in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies -- he was in Batman Begins, and his fifth film on the 2012 calendar is The Dark Knight Rises.

One difference in Cage's favor is that he's actually mixed in some respectable work in the past couple years. While Cage was praised for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Kick-Ass, Neeson hasn't gotten a real whiff of critical acclaim since Kinsey back in 2004. In fact, Cage even has the more recent Oscar nomination, back in 2002 when he was up for Adaptation. Neeson's last Oscar nomination was in 1993 for Schindler's List -- and in fact it was his only nomination. (Even though he ought to have gotten one for Kinsey.)

But there's almost no doubt in our minds that Neeson is the better actor, right? Is it the gruff sense of gravitas he brings to his roles? Or is it just the fact that he doesn't expose himself to the same kind of ridicule Cage exposes himself to by not taking the risks Cage takes?

Don't get me wrong -- the point of this piece is not to prove that Cage is a better actor, or that he is in some way unworthy of the criticism he gets. I have laughed and shaken my head at Cage numerous times, and I believe he has deserved it each and every time. No one's saying Cage is portrayed unfairly. Most often the way he's characterized is pretty dead on.

But it's just interesting to me how Neeson gets a total free pass. I mean, Battleship? Have you seen how ridiculous that looks? If Nicolas Cage had taken that role, we'd be howling. But Neeson takes it and we don't blink. Is it possible that Neeson just fades into the background more easily? Do we kind of "look past" him?

You might also say that Cage has the courage of his convictions: At least he knows his movies are bad. The movies know they're bad, too. Most of the time. Neeson's bad movies seem more serious, like they're trying to be good. (And yes, I thought Taken was bad, even though it was a certified hit for him.)

It's funny, because this impression of Neeson as a fairly unselective actor just doesn't penetrate the first few layers of our brains. I guested on a film podcast last year and Battleship came up. I said something along the lines of "It's funny how we've gotten to the point where Liam Neeson, an Oscar winner, is in the Battleship movie." It's as though Neeson has cast a spell over us that makes us see him as so regal, so dignified. In fact, he's been making the Battleship movie for at least a couple years now, hasn't he?

The thing is, Neeson is not actually an Oscar winner. Even earlier in this piece I listed him as being one. It's only in my subsequent research that I'm realizing he did not actually win the Oscar for Schindler's List. But see, that's kind of the point. Admit it -- when I said Neeson was an Oscar winner, you didn't blink, did you? Neeson makes us think he's an Oscar winner with that smooth voice, that rugged sense of confidence, that idea that there's no piece of dialogue that might best him.

Hold on there. It sounds like I'm going negative on Neeson. I'm not, really. I very much like the man. But again, that's the point -- has he really earned it? Or is he just a really effective snake oil salesman, and what he's selling us is his persona?

Unfortunately, I'm inclined to think that there's a sad reason for Neeson throwing himself so wholeheartedly into his work for the past three years. When Neeson's wife, the darling actress Natasha Richardson, died during a skiing accident in March of 2009, I imagine it must have been incredibly sad for him. Theirs did not seem to be one of those Hollywood marriages built on a sham and bound for collapse. I felt that Neeson must have grieved deeply for her. Maybe he filled the hole by making a bunch of Clash of the Titans movies.

And because he seems like a nice man who would have been a loving husband and father, I don't mind so much that no one accuses Neeson of appearing in a bunch of stuff that's beneath him. If making a thinly-veiled Transformers rip-off that's a big-screen adaptation of a board game involving red and white pegs helps distract him from his loss, more power to him.

But I still don't think I'm going to be in line for Battleship.

You're more likely to see me at Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

(Hey, I'm curious to see what Neveldine/Taylor might bring to it.)

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