Around 1999, Liam Neeson's film career took something of a nosedive.
The 90s had been good to Neeson – he'd become the toast of Hollywood for a string of spellbinding performances including Schindler's List, Rob Roy and Michael Collins, not to mention his turn as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
But then something happened. All of a sudden, the glory-getting man parts were going to other actors, actors like Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.
For the next decade Neeson was left with little choice but to reprise his Star Wars performance again and again – that of an avuncular, gravel-voiced spirit guide who shepherds younger actors through hard times (see Kinsey, K-19: The Widowmaker, Batman Begins, Kingdom of Heaven, even as Aslan the Lion in The Chronicles of Narnia).
He was getting paid, sure, but what about his soul? He needed a route back to the top. He needed to do what every middle-aged actor must do when the roles dry up. He needed Taken.
There comes a time in almost every middle-aged male actor's life when he needs to do an action movie about a former elite agent dragged begrudgingly out of retirement to save a girl, the day, and his flagging career.
The character's wife's probably left him, took the kids, and married some smarmy city trader who gives great teenage birthday presents. Will our hero stand meekly by? Will he fuck. He'll save the day by throat-punching a bunch of gangsters with accents, save the president and avert nuclear war.
Name three Hollywood stars over 45 who hasn't done that movie. It is a sure-fire way of resuscitating a flatlining body of work.
Take Arnold Schwarzenegger. When his second tenure as governor of California came to an end, he decided to move back into film. He did The Expendables II while he was still in office, but it bombed. So he did The Last Stand, about a washed-up former LAPD detective who's settled into a peaceful life as sheriff of a sleepy desert town. Then, when a vicious crime lord escapes from FBI custody and speeds toward the town, Arnie is dragged reluctantly into action to bring the cartel to justice. Finally, Arnie was back.
By 2014, Pierce Brosnan hadn't starred in anything good since 2002's Die Another Day (save perhaps his supporting role in The Ghost Writer in 2010). So he did November Man, about a CIA veteran who's pulled back into service to help save a Russian agent, also his former lover. It was a turkey, and he's done little of any substance since, but at least he tried.
When Richard Gere won a Golden Globe for his performance as Billy Flynn in Chicago, he seemed to have Hollywood drinking from the palm of his hand. But the milk went sour, and he spent the next nine years wandering the shadows of Hollywood in films with names like The Hoax, The Flock, and Hachi: A Dog's Tale. So, in 2011, he did The Double, a whirligig action frolic about a retired CIA operative drawn back into spycraft by his former boss to unravel the mystery of a senator's murder. It, too, stank as a movie, but that's not the point. It kept him in the game.
Of course, not all actors do taught out-of-retirement action flicks solely as a form of career CPR. Some are tied into a multi-picture deal with a studio and have no choice. Others may do it so their kids will actually watch them in something. For others, it's a bit like your dad buying a motorcycle at 50.
The point is, every male actor does a mandatory unretirement movie at some point in his life. They may seem like throwaway trash movies but that doesn't matter. They are confidence boosters for them and for us. They remind us all that it's never too late to save a president or take down a gang of knife-wielding drug dealers. If they, with their creased faces and cardigan bodies, can win at life, so can we.
But most of all, they are a lasting and necessary reminder that – so long as we can still make a fist and maintain a thousand-yard stare – none of us are too old for this shit.
Just some of the proof:
Liam Neeson (Taken)
Matt Damon (Bourne series)
Robert De Niro (Ronin)
Aaron Eckhart (The Expatriate)
Denzil Washington (The Equalizer, Man on Fire)
Wesley Snipes (Unstoppable)
Pierce Brosnan (The November Man)
Bruce Willis (The Fifth Element)
Richard Gere (The Double)
Steven Seagal (Under Siege, almost every movie)
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Commando, Expendables II, The Last Stand)
Samuel L Jackson (Big Game)
Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven)