The Number One Movie in America: Taken
By Sean Collier
January 24, 2021
Liam Neeson believed that “Taken” would be “a little side road” on his career, suspecting that the action film would likely go straight to video.
He was wrong.
The relatively low-budget thriller — it was made for about $25 million — was a runaway hit, netting more than $145 million domestically over nine weeks in the box-office top ten. The 20th highest-grossing film of 2009, “Taken” begat a pair of sequels, both of which also topped the box office and made decent money (though they fared better overseas than domestically).
As for Neeson’s career, the side road proved to be long and winding. Suddenly, the veteran was an action star — a decided change of pace for a guy until then associated with prestige fare like “Schindler’s List” and soft-edged characters like his mourning widower in “Love Actually.”
To correct a common misconception, though, the transformation wasn’t immediate. In the aftermath of “Taken,” Neeson continued on two of the roads he frequently trod in the aughts: big-budget tentpoles and little indie flicks. He appeared in “Chloe” and “After.Life” the next year, and continued lending his voice to the “Chronicles of Narnia” series (along with the English-language dub of the Studio Ghibli film “Ponyo.”) He did “The A-Team” and “Clash of the Titans.”
He had a very particular set of skills, but he wasn’t yet willing to use them too often.
The more robust career change set in a full two years after “Taken,” with Neeson taking the lead in “Unknown” in 2011 and both “The Grey” and “Taken 2” in 2012. (In fact, it was longer than that; “Taken” debuted overseas a full year before its US release, so it’s better thought of as a 2008 film.) Three separate action flicks — “Non-Stop,” “A Walk Among the Tombstones” and “Taken 3” — appeared in 2014, immediately followed by “Run All Night” in 2015.
Now the side road was a full-on career path — one that continues to this day. As I write this, the middling action flick “The Marksman,” starring Neeson as a disgruntled Texan rancher and ex-Marine, is the number one movie in America.
Somehow, it’s the second Liam Neeson movie to top the box office since the pandemic began.
The road from “Taken” to Liam Neeson, Action Workhorse may not have been direct, but “Taken” was certainly the starting point. While he does bring a physical intensity — mostly around the eyes and fists — to action roles, the real source of this trend is his voice. It’s no accident that the “I will find you and I will kill you” speech has become a meme; hearing Neeson’s comforting, whiskey-kissed voice turn direct and sinister is the key moment in “Taken,” the most memorable thing in a fundamentally formulaic film.
It also helped “Taken,” particularly in word-of-mouth, that it is direct, quick and uncomplicated. Running a breezy 90 minutes, the film has no interest in side-plots or detailed world building; aside from some dispensable business with a corrupt French official, “Taken” walks a straight line from problem to solution.
He shows up, he punches, he succeeds, he goes home. It worked. And it’s still working, at least once a year.
“Taken” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: Maybe don’t get an easily identifiable tattoo if you're going to rob banks? Just a thought.