Alexander Pope once noted, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” Often the biggest obstacle impeding our enjoyment of a film is our own expectations. That’s not to say a movie can’t be judged effectively on its own merits, but preconceived notions can color our estimations of the movie before we even walk into the theater. These notions can be the result of trailers, of persuasive word-of-mouth, or, in the case of a franchise, on the films that preceded. That is certainly one of the hills Taken 2 must climb this weekend.
However, that will not be Taken 2’s only challenge. Were it any other sequel, it would only have to tangle with these familiar sets of expectations. However, this is a franchise that stars Liam Neeson; the public's construct of what defines a Neeson movie is constantly changing. What’s interesting about the ill-defined Neeson mold is that it’s actually begun to create a problem for the actor over the last four years.
When Taken was readying to hit theaters in early 2008, audiences weren’t sure what to expect. The critics weren’t overly enthusiastic going into the movie: it hadn’t screened wide for press, and it was sort of being dumped in January. Also, nobody seemed convinced that Liam Neeson could carry an action movie. It’s actually quite bizarre. It’s as if we had collectively developed amnesia that obscured his roles in Rob Roy, Krull, and even Star Wars Episode I from our memories.
Taken turned out to not only be a fantastic action film, but in fact one of the better action movies of the last few years — one that seemed to be forging the blueprint for studio action films to follow. It was streamlined; a no-nonsense, pragmatic approach to ass-kicking. It completely reenergized Neeson’s career and placed him in the forefront of the genre’s leading men, where he belonged in the first place. This was followed by a number of projects that played to similar action sensibilities, if not always matching in quality: Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, etc.
So when the ads began to surface for Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, it didn’t seem all that presumptuous to believe we were in for something of similar ilk. Neeson and Carnahan had just worked on The A-Team, an over-the-top action adventure romp, and the marketing for The Grey seemed well aware of that expectation. It became the “it” joke to refer to The Grey as “Taken By Wolves.” What we got instead was a contemplative, visceral descent into purgatory on Earth that had more in common with Milton than it did with Taken.
If you missed The Grey in theaters, it is now available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service. It’s not a stretch to predict that it will surprise you. The Grey retained enough action set pieces to hold fast to that genre classification, but it could have been labeled a dramatic thriller with equal accuracy. Taxonomical uncertainty aside, one thing that could not be questioned was that we got more than we bargained for with The Grey, and it’s lost not one iota of its impact in the transition from silver to small screen.
An expectation-defying film like The Grey can only be regarded as a positive for an actor, right? In many ways, that is true. But there is another angle to consider here. If indeed you watch The Grey on Netflix right before heading off to the theaters for Taken 2, the resulting disparity in tone and quality may place you in danger of suffering whiplash. Again, it’s not as if each film in an actor’s catalog cannot, or should not, be judged on its own merits. The question however is whether The Grey has once again changed the Liam Neeson standard.
First we didn’t believe he could be an action star, and then came Taken. After that, we came to expect a certain type of action movie from him; The Grey soundly shattering the newly formed archetype. Watching Taken 2, it became clear that the exception of The Grey was coloring the experience as if it were the new rule. Granted, there is a marked decline in the fundamental aspects of filmmaking from the first to the second Taken, but one wonders if we would have been satisfied even if the sequel had been exactly on par with its 2008 predecessor.
As an actor, Liam Neeson, like the first Taken, is not one to remain stagnant. As his projects evolve and change, so do our expectations for his work. These expectations are not often reasonable and can drastically alter how we enjoy his various movies. Be forewarned, Neeson has become as unpredictable as the advancing wolves in The Grey. Nothing you’ve seen of him so far should be taken for granted.
[Photo Credit: Open Road Films]