Oscar-nominated actor Liam Neeson has clearly entered a phase in his career as the new Chuck Norris, the alpha male of ass-kicking virility. Neeson may not be an 8th Degree Black Belt Grand Master in Tae Kwon Do. But Neeson has 12 years, nearlhy half a foot in height and a whole lot more acting chops on the former Walker, Texas Ranger.
The Irish movie star’s mournful eyes and hang-dog expression frequently earned him sensitive-guy parts in the likes of Husbands and Wives or Nell. But he’s never been a total wuss, either, playing such manly men as Sam Raimi’s hideously scarred superhero Darkman, kilt-wearing, sword-swinging Rob Roy and the strapping Irish revolutionary Michael Collins. Sure, Darth Maul stuck him good in The Phantom Menace, but he K.O’d death itself as the voice of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia. As Zeus in the Titans movies, he seems typecast, and even when he portrayed the tweedy, bookish title role of Kinsey, he was totally hung.
Neeson has taken it upon himself to shake up the winter doldrums at the cineplex by beating the bejesus out of evildoers — some of whom aren’t even human. He warmed up in 2009 with Taken, when foreign sleazoids has the gall to kidnap his daughter. Neeson told one over the phone, “"I will look for you, I WILL find you and I will kill you,” and spent the rest of the movie doing exactly that. Neeson took on conspiratorial German assassins last year in Unknown, and faces off with wolves and other forces of nature in his latest thriller, The Grey.
Reuniting with his A-Team director Joe Carnahan, Neeson plays a marksman hired to keep wild animals from eating the workers at an icy Alaskan oil refinery. A couple of guys’ll be talking out of the open, a wolf’ll run up, unbeknownst to them, Neeson takes aim through his sniper-scope and BANG! What dead eyes you have. But a plane carrying Neeson and a bunch of other roughnecks crashes in the middle of frozen nowhere, and the wolves are like, “Where’s your fancy rifle now, you big biped?”
But Neeson doesn’t really need his big gun. Taking charge of the seven survivors, Neeson faces down the wolves with makeshift torches, knives, spears and even — as shown in the trailer — a bunch of broken airplane mini-bottles tied to his knuckles. After a wolf bites him, he quips, “Maybe I’ll turn into a wolfman,” and one of the other guys asks, “That shit’s not real, is it?” Because with Neeson, it wouldn't be that much of a shock. Neeson even puts down a challenge from an ex-con in a scene that none-too-subtly parallels the behavior of pack animals.
Neeson’s haunted countenance and gruff delivery can nearly take all the guilt out of watching a guilty-pleasure movie. In The Grey, he wrestles with suicidal despair even before his plane crashes, so between the mauling of his co-stars, the film depicts human resolve under pressure like a Jack London survival tale. At one point, Neeson even calls out God Himself. The trouble is that Carnahan seems reluctant to make The Grey too much fun, so the second half draws down the wolf fights in favor of dull conversations about faith and mortality and stuff.
Having fought timber wolves, he’s next going to take on transforming alien robots in that big movie based on a Hasbro property — you know, Battleship. Where does he go from there? A mixed martial arts match with a Sherman tank? A drinking contest with the city of Boston? A staring contest with the Red Spot of Jupiter? The smart money’s on Neeson.
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