Is Liam Neeson really an action star?

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Image Credit: Kimberley French

A movie about Liam Neeson punching wolves just made $20 million at the weekend box office. And The Grey is just the opening salvo. Neeson has four more films coming out in 2012, at a rate of roughly once every couple months, all of them films that seem likely to top the box office. He returns as Zeus in March’s Wrath of the Titans; he plays the only remotely authentic naval officer amidst a cast of underwear models in May’s Battleship; he will reportedly have a flashback cameo in July’s The Dark Knight Rises; and he’ll wind up the year in a sequel to Taken, revisiting the role that initiated his late-period left turn into action heroics. It’s a striking transformation for an actor who, just a few years ago, was better known for films like Kinsey and Rob Roy. But three years into his new career as an angry-man bruiser, how does Neeson’s track record compare to other action stars?

It’s a tricky question, since the whole notion of what makes an “action star” has shifted radically in the last 10 years. In the ’80s, actors like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were their own franchise: They didn’t necessarily play the same characters, but they were always essentially playing themselves. Now Hollywood is essentially only in the franchise business. This puts younger actors in a tricky spot. Take Chris Pine and Sam Worthington, two actors who had their breakout roles the same year as Taken. Chris Pine’s Star Trek grossed $385 million worldwide, while Worthington grossed $371 million with Terminator: Salvation, to say nothing of the five cubic money bins grossed by biggest-movie-ever Avatar. Comparatively, Taken grossed a mere $225 million.

Of course, Taken only cost about $26 million to produce. More to the point, it’s fair to say that Worthington and Pine had almost nothing to do with their movie’s successes. Like most other young actors in Hollywood, their non-franchise box office record is dispiriting. Pine starred in Unstoppable (a.k.a. The Train That Couldn’t Slow Down) to the tune of $195 million, but that seems more attributable to costar Denzel Washington than a Star Trek halo. Worthington, conversely, doesn’t even seem to particularly want to be a big movie star: He’s mostly starred in smaller films, secure in the knowledge that future franchise entries will secure him a big payday.

Neeson, conversely, has mixed up supporting work in franchise movies with movies that are essentially just about him killing people — Taken, Unknown, and now The Grey. A Cinemascore poll pointed out that 67 percent of people who saw The Grey saw it specifically because of Neeson, which I’m guessing is not a statistic you’ll be seeing about Shia LaBeouf anytime soon.

The older class of action stars has mostly retreated into franchise territory. Bruce Willis had a string of failures — most recently Surrogates — but in the next year, he’s got Expendables 2 and a new Die Hard, not to mention a role in G.I. Joe: Retaliation alongside fellow franchise nomad Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Likewise, Tom Cruise just had his first big hit in years by returning to the Mission: Impossible franchise. Ghost Protocol‘s success is massive — at a reported cost of $145 million it looks on track to make $600 million abroad.

Neeson’s success is on a decidedly more minor scale. Unknown grossed a solid $130 million globally. Taken actually only made $80 million abroad, proving that the appeal of Liam Neeson beating up rape-y foreigners may not necessarily translate abroad. Notably, Neeson’s one big tentpole release where he had an actual leading role was The A-Team, which grossed a measly $177 million globally. The better comparison might be to Jason Statham, the only other current action hero whose appeal rests more in his highly specific persona than on any one role. Statham releases a new movie basically every couple of weeks, and his last few — Killer Elite, The Mechanic, and Crank: High Voltage — have all grossed roughly in the area of $40-$50 million. Of course, no one’s asking Statham to play Zeus.

It could be that Neeson’s whole rebirth as an action hero will just be a minor flare. The Grey walked away with a B- from Cinemascore and grossed a few million less than Unknown, a downward trend. It could be that his career will involve more paycheck-gravitas in big movies. A lot will depend on the performance of Taken 2. If it succeeds, then Neeson will have his very own franchise. If it fails, well, we’ll always have The Grey.

PopWatchers, did you see The Grey? Did it live up to your expectations? Also, what should they call Taken 2? I’m leaning towards Taken 2: Took.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:
Box office report: ‘The Grey’ is No. 1 with $20 mil
The reinvention of Liam Neeson: As an action star, he’s an aging, and ageless, dynamo

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