“Excalibur” was a formative theatrical experience for me. It was one of the first R-rated films I specifically decided I wanted to see in a theater. I'd seen other R-rated films before that, but always at random and because someone else decided I was going to see it. With “Excalibur,” I was crazy to see it, and the film landed on me like a ton of bricks. Surreal, violent, beautiful, explicit, and for a mythology nut, seeing how the film dealt with each of the characters, each of the Arthurian archetypes, I was in love.
One of the guys who made an impression in the film was a young Liam Neeson, and for the rest of the '80s, he racked up a number of performances where, good film or bad, he made an impression. How could he not? No one else looked like him. Slightly over eight feet tall, possessed of an Irish brogue that could be poured like whiskey, he finally started to really move front and center in the second half of the decade. Like anyone trying to build a resume in the '80s, he made a memorable appearance on “Miami Vice,” then played major roles in “Suspect,” “The Good Mother,” the underrated “A Prayer For The Dying,” the Dirty Harry film “The Dead Pool,” and even the odd Neil Jordan romantic-comedy-wtih-ghosts film “High Spirits.”
Phase two of his career began when Steven Spielberg cast him as Oskar Schindler. Just two years earlier, he was “Darkman” for Sam Raimi, and then suddenly he was the guy in Woody Allen's new film or the guy in “Nell” or the new hero of real-life UK history in films like “Rob Roy” or “Michael Collins.” It was a respectable era, and that respectability then fed into phase three of his career when George Lucas cast him as Qui-Gon Jinn. He became the Ultimate Mentor, playing riffs on that basic tune in a fistful of movies. Each of these phases added some new side of Liam Neeson for filmmakers to cast, and it was in 2008 that he got reinvented once again thanks to Luc Besson and Pierre Morel and “Taken.” Now he is the soft-spoken older giant who will gladly beat the hot shit out of a bad guy, and he's a genuine box-office force playing variations on the role.
We sat down to talk about his work in the new film “A Walk Among The Tombstones,” where he plays Matthew Scudder, the primary character in a series of novels by Lawrence Block. In the earlier books in the series, Scudder has a less-than-healthy relationship with alcohol, but by the time this one rolls around, he's handed himself over to a twelve-step lifestyle, and that tension is part of the drama. He's aware of just how destructive his natural tendencies are, and he's afraid of himself as a result.
One thing that was clear as we spoke was that he's been able to turn the box-office clout that a hit like “Taken” gives him in the international financing landscape into the ability to get some things made that might otherwise be harder to pay for. Scott Frank spent a lot of years trying to get “Tombstones” made, and it took a movie star who had a certain amount of muscle to help finally do that. It makes Neeson more than just someone you hire. At this point, he's a major collaborative partner when he makes a movie, and he obviously takes his own history and iconography for what they're worth, an admirable quality.
“A Walk Among The Tombstones” opens in theaters everywhere September 19th.