The Top Ten Liam Neeson Performances

P.T. Philben ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

10. Dr. Jerome Lovell – Nell (1994)

Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson in Nell Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox
Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson in Nell. Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox.

[translating for Nell to the court] “You have big things. You know big things. But you don’t look into each other’s eyes. And you’re hungry for quietness.”

Dr. Jerome Lovell is a kind and caring local doctor. He finds a terrified young woman named Nell Kellty (Jodie Foster) hiding in the rafters of an old house, where she was raised in isolation by her now-dead mother, and does not understand human interaction. Jerome becomes a father figure for Nell, fighting for her rights in court. Neeson provides vital supporting work for Foster’s accomplished performance and gives the film its emotional center. In a movie that was essentially made as an Oscar vehicle for Foster, Neeson’s performance is superb in its own right and Foster wouldn’t have delivered as she did opposite a lesser actor.

9. Peyton Westlake/DarkmanDarkman (1990)

Liam Neeson in a scene from Darkman Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
Liam Neeson in a scene from Darkman. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

“I am everyone and no one. Everywhere. Nowhere. Call me… Darkman.”

Liam Neeson already had his great superhero role and it was Darkman. Darkman is an original superhero film written and directed by genre film legend Sam Raimi about a scientist who is disfigured when his lab is attacked by a group of mobsters who burn him with acid. When radical procedures are taken to save his life, he emerges with enhanced strength and stamina along with his own science; a synthetic skin he can use to disguise himself. Neeson creates a compelling character who is victimized in ways unimaginable. Darkman completely loses his mind in this process but he is still portrayed as a sympathetic monster. Neeson shows how a great actor can give such a powerful performance even through makeup and embodies a man who has made an identity out of his lost one.

8. Alistair Little – Five Minutes of Heaven (2009)

Liam Neeson in Five Minutes of Heaven Photo Credit: IFC Films
Liam Neeson in Five Minutes of Heaven. Photo Credit: IFC Films.

“Time will heal they say… what everybody says about everything. The years just get heavier. Why don’t they tell you that? Nobody tells you that!”

Alistair Little was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (Northern Irish loyalists to the UK) as a teenager. In 1975, at age 17, Alistair (played by Mark Ryder) unquestionably carries out an order to kill an eight-year-old boy. Thirty-three years later (including one decade-long jail sentence), Alistair (now played by Neeson) seeks reconciliation by meeting with the victim’s still living older brother. You can see the pain in Little’s eyes as he recounts the story of his crime and the weight on his shoulders is brutally present on screen and yet wonderfully understated. Even more impressive is how much he communicates about a change of heart, which we never fully witness, with so little. A man who once believed in the righteousness in his actions religiously and now has to find new purpose.

7. Bryan Mills – Taken (2008)

Liam Neeson on the phone in Taken Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox
Liam Neeson in Taken. Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox.

“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you… and I will kill you.”

This is the role that took Neeson from being typecast as an inspirational historical figure to being typecast as an aging action star. Neeson can kick ass and the unusually long quote above summarizes everything you need to know about this particular badass. Brian Mills is an ex-soldier. They never go into much greater detail, summarizing his career with his “very particular set of skills.” When Mills’s daughter is kidnapped by a group of European slave traders, he is forced to spring out of retirement when the French authorities prove inadequate. Neeson provides a slick action movie through shoot ups, sneaking, and hitting people in the neck (a lot). This movie may have led to a string of mediocre or flat out bad older action hero romps (including this movie’s sequels), but it proved Neeson’s potential as an action star, and it’s a persona that Neeson kills in.

6. Robert Roy Macgregor – Rob Roy (1995)

Liam Neeson in Rob Roy Photo Credit: United Artists
Liam Neeson in Rob Roy. Photo Credit: United Artists.

“All men with honor are kings. But not all kings have honor.”

Before Neeson became an action star, he was mostly known for his frequent embodiments of historical figures. Robert Roy Macgregor, or simply Rob Roy, was a Scottish outlaw folk hero who has come to be identified as Scotland’s answer to Robin Hood. He is a man who is obsessed with honor to perhaps an unhealthy degree, which is how you know he is serious when he is brought to fight against aristocrats oppressing him and his people. Neeson perfectly captures this mythological figure and brings him down to a level where his story is compelling, sympathetic, and even believable. When he is forced to take on the Robin Hood persona of a hero who steals from the rich to give to the poor, Neeson gets the opportunity to explore this man’s nobility as well as his hesitation. Eighteenth-century Scotland has never been so cool.

5. John Ottway – The Grey (2011)

Liam Neeson in The Grey Photo Credit: Open Road Films
Liam Neeson in The Grey. Photo Credit: Open Road Films.

“Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day… live and die on this day…”

The greatest of Neeson’s new aging badasses, John Ottway is, of course, a man with a mysterious background. Ottway now works as an escort, protecting an oil drilling team from threatening wildlife, namely wolves. When the team’s plane crashes in nowhere, Alaska, he is forced to take the leadership role as they travel south and survive periodic encounters with hungry wolves.
Neeson can obviously carry himself as a brooding and jaded fighter, but what makes Ottway distinct from the other mid-life crisis fulfillment movies is that The Grey is a movie that is trying to make something meaningful out of it. This is an epic survival story taking place in the Alaskan wilderness, our nation’s very own Siberia. John Ottway has to find the will to carry himself—and those whom he has claimed responsibility for—home. This seems hindered by whatever it is that made him consider suicide at the beginning of the film. His decision to live on for something is a decision that takes a visible toll on him, and that is half his battle. The other half is fighting off wolves, which is just awesome. Neeson’s emotionally potent action hero is a memorable beast.

4. Henri Ducard/Ra’s Al Ghul – Batman Begins (2005)

Liam Neeson in Batman Begins Photo Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures
Liam Neeson in Batman Begins. Photo Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures.

“A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.”

Some of Neeson’s famous mentor portrayals didn’t quite make the cut, but it’s hard to see how you can turn away one of Neeson’s rare turns as the villain. Heath Ledger came to give the quintessential super-villain performance in the sequel The Dark Knight, but no one expected him to top Neeson’s enigma. He was an enigma because he portrayed a character who was charismatic and clearly motivated but you are never sure, until you are close to the end, about his angle. When we meet Neeson as Henri Ducard, he gets Bruce Wayne out of prison and trains him to become a crime fighter in the League of Shadows, which leads to him becoming Batman. He at first seems to simply be motivated to make a better world same as Bruce, but then he reveals the nature of the organization he pulled Bruce into; seeking “justice” by any means necessary.
We learn later that Batman’s mentor was more than just a subordinate of a radical organization and had much grander intentions. He reveals himself to be Ra’s Al Ghul, the leader of the League. Once Al Ghul’s greater plot is initiated, his true characteristics are revealed, and there’s nothing scarier than a madman explaining his plan and sounding sensible despite it being anything but, and Neeson can pull that off. He was the man to beat with this role because he embodied something beyond what was ever achieved in the comic book version of the character through his complexity, his mysterious persona, the nuance of his politics, and the grace with which he commits atrocious crimes. He was a mentor, an ideological extremist, and Neeson is the perfect orator for Christopher Nolan’s rich and intelligent dialogue. Neeson’s rendition of the little-known comic book villain presents a multifaceted, articulate man who took his ideology too far.

3. Michael Collins – Michael Collins (1996)

Liam Neeson in Michael Collins Photo Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures
Liam Neeson in Michael Collins. Photo Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures.

“If the price of freedom, if the price of peace is the blackening of my name; I will gladly pay it.”

One of Ireland’s greatest actors portrays Ireland’s greatest revolutionary patriot. Michael Collins was an Irish Revolutionary who is credited with being the individual most responsible for Irish independence. The leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and by extension the Irish Republican Army, Collins was the face of the revolt against what the Irish saw as British oppression of the green island’s people.
Neeson delivers a powerhouse performance worthy of this man’s momentous legacy. Neeson delivers some powerful crowd-pleasing soliloquies in his signature gruff voice in his native accent with intelligent charisma. The patriotic drive is visible in the very fiber of his being on screen, and through the more emotional scenes with friends and family we see what brings him to become his peoples deliverance. It is his love for family and country that defines him to his very core, and Neeson sells it as well as any revolutionary leader would. This is Irish patriotism personified in all its glory on screen.

2. Alfred Kinsey – Kinsey (2004)

Liam Neeson in Kinsey Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Liam Neeson in Kinsey. Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

“Love is the answer, isn’t it? But sex raises a lot of very interesting questions.”

Let’s talk about sex. This historical figure is easily the most divisive of Neeson’s repertoire of famous dead men. Alfred Charles Kinsey was a biologist who is most famous for his contributions to the study of human sexuality. He is famous for producing the “Kinsey scale”, a scale representing various manifestations of sexual orientation (look it up, it’s quite fascinating).
The man, it turns out, is just as fascinating as his work. Neeson portrays a man who has an intense passion for human sexuality that goes beyond his boundless appetite for engagement of intercourse. That passion shines through Neeson’s engagingly odd portrayal of a man who is every bit as quirky as one might expect. Since Kinsey’s work was produced around the McCarthy era (conservative and paranoid), he not only faced decent opposition but possibly jail time for “undermining American values.” This depressing story of a visionary being destroyed by his own country for his important work is addressed through the movie and Neeson’s work with outrageous humor, without taking away from the tragedy of it. A bold man who nobly tried to take the taboo out of sex is even more interesting, enthralling and charged than it sounds when Neeson is doing the talking.

1. Oskar Schindler – Schindler’s List (1993)

Liam Neeson in Schindler's List Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

“This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!”

Steven Spielberg, Ralph Fiennes, and of course Neeson all turned in their magnum opus with Schindler’s List. Neeson portrays Oskar Schindler, a privileged German member of the Nazi party who comes to Nazi-occupied Poland to take advantage of cheap Jewish labor to make his fortune. What the real life historical figure Oskar Schindler is most famous for is using his employment of “essential workers” to save thousands of Jews during the holocaust.
Schindler is a despicable character at the beginning of the film; a member of the Nazi party, a pampered member of the elite class and a war profiteer. Still, he manages to pull you in with his charisma and signs of doubt that are so utterly human. As the story continues, through his interaction with his Jewish right hand man Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) and his foil the sadistically ruthless SS officer Amon Goeth (Fiennes), Neeson communicates the ultimate change of heart from an entitled industrialist to a humble savior.
Neeson has always had a divine quality about him (he has played gods on multiple occasions) and this quality makes him perfect to play a figure like Schindler because of how the “Schindler Jews” saw him as a god and/or their lord and savior. Neeson sells the divine figure act as well as almost anyone ever could, but we also get an inside look at the man’s emotional, ethical, and moral transformation. Schindler gives his sermon on the mount and follows it up with an emotional breakdown, a god to his workers but just a man behind closed doors. Both are powerful performances in their own right, and Neeson manages to universally nail the challenging balance that comes with playing a messiah-like historical figure that for most actors would have to be a compromise; Neeson managed to perfectly encapsulate the legend, the myth that is Schindler’s ark, as well as the man.

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