How Liam Neeson Became a Comedian for a Day

How Liam Neeson Became a Comedian for a Day

Actor Liam Neeson attends the 'Taken 2' in Seoul, South Korea.

SourceChung Sung-Jun/Getty

Why you should care

Because you can’t get enough of Bryan Mills.

If you’ve been to a multiplex in the past five years, you’ve borne witness to the kind of late-career rebirth once reserved only for Han Solo and Jesus Christ. You’ve watched a cumbersome, awkward and vaguely geriatric man — possessing what we have been assured (several times) is indeed a very unique set of skills — kick the boulder from the cave door and emerge into our filthy world with the muted zeal of a self-diagnosed alcoholic on a distillery tour.

I’m talking about Liam Neeson, a man with a preternatural taste for warm bagels and the kind of Stanislavskian minimalism in which euphoria, bottomless misery and a punch to the face all elicit the same nonresponse.

We know he knows that the idea of a humorless 60-year-old throwing men half his age off parking structures is inherently ridiculous.

Though we have the Taken series, Non-Stop, A Walk Among the Tombstones and perhaps another 10 Luc Besson dog’s dinners in which to enjoy Neeson as a high-functioning, low-emoting McGruff, we’ve generally been denied the actor’s comedic gifts. What laughs these films have produced seem the unintended result of screenplays written by Google Translate or a very hungry person.

But a few years ago, in between making everyone uncomfortable and making everyone very uncomfortable, Ricky Gervais stepped in and, with collaborator Stephen Merchant (to Gervais’ Ivory), gave us five minutes of improvisational comedy that should play on a loop next to the glass sarcophagus in Belfast where Neeson will eventually be laid to rest.

If Gervais’ slow-motion-car-accident comedy makes you anxious, you probably passed on Life’s Too Short. And you weren’t wrong to do so — it was an occasionally mean-spirited, frequently unfunny show that had little to offer beyond, oh, the best five-minute sketch in the past 10 years. But thanks to the miracles of technology, all is not lost. It’s pretty clear that all this improvisational comedy was, on some level, actually improvisational. Certainly workshopped, so it’s a shame to miss out on the outtakes, character breaks and false starts that didn’t make the edit. What we do have, though, is a kind of road map for becoming a lasting star: self-awareness.

The comedy works because we can feel Neeson winking at us, because we know he knows that the idea of a humorless 60-year-old throwing men half his age off parking structures is inherently ridiculous. And that he’s enjoying the ride: “I’ve played Robert Roy MacGregor, Michael Collins, Oskar Schindler … Zeus, for God’s sake … no one’s gonna believe me as a greengrocer.” And he’s right — we wouldn’t. But as an actor playing an actor who drew on list-making in his sense-memory work to play Oskar Schindler? That’s no more ridiculous than any of the late-career films that have made him a household name. But it’s a lot funnier.

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