For a while it looked like the middle-aged action fan was a relic. Locked in his fortress of solitude, he grunted over the crisis of masculinity that was the local cinema listings. Nothing but ex-drug addicts in iron suits, heavily mascaraed pirates and the urban assault that is the Fast and Furious franchise.
Sure, there’s Jason Statham’s prodigious output. But for all his scissor-kicks, The Stath’s best left for a drunken late-night trudge through Netflix.
All that stopped when Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) broke his first neck in 2008’s Taken.
Mills, too, was a relic. Estranged from his wife, out of touch with his daughter, reduced to BBQs and Buds with the other divorced losers. Christ, the guy was over 50 and still wearing a leather jacket. (Hollywood shorthand for past-it.)
But minutes into Taken his background as a one-man army became relevant again when his daughter is kidnapped. Now the very utterance of his name causes unexpected bowel movements from CIA staffers and only his man-shit can rescue her.
In the same year Taken was released, Neeson voiced Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And with it came a forceful restatement of this kind of traditionalism when Aslan rips the White Witch’s head off like it was KFC.
Now in 2015, Taken 3‘s $39million US opening weekend is proof dad-core films can still rake it in. Combining the double impact of familial relationships with bang-bang action, they form a kind of self-help for the action fan.
For example, at a workplace meeting you’re shown up by a 20-something exec. What would Bryan Mills do? Kill everyone in the room and buy the CEO a giant panda. That’s how he’d move the project forward, Taken 3-style.
Your wife is concerned about your adherence to the word of Mills and wants you to see a shrink? Well, Mills doesn’t talk things out. He just makes threatening phone calls.
In Taken 2, Mills triangulates his daughter’s position by getting her to explode grenades in an empty car park. Throw that sat-nav away now. It makes you look weak.
Dreaded office away day coming up? Check out The Grey and ponder which one of your workmates would survive the Alaskan wilderness. Now you know who to brief against. Hell, Neeson having a fistfight with wolves is simply an extension of office politics.
Neeson now seems to play roles that combine the everyday concerns of middle-age men (being a father and husband), a ‘particular set of skills’ (black-belt upfuckery), and under-the-radar sexism (women either need to be saved or simply don’t feature) to box office success.
Perhaps this is why the revival of action stars from the 80s and 90s has been an unsuccessful venture where no one gets out alive. The Expendables franchise is an exercise in mission creep and diminishing returns, while absolutely no one watched Stallone and Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan.
Simply turning up and saying ‘I’m back’ no longer cuts it. There has to be some domestic mundanity to rationalise blowing up half a Caribbean island.