Liam Neeson is in The A-Team and you think that's weird?
We are but days removed from the release of the big-screen adaptation of '80s television dynamo The A-Team. The film reunites Face, Hannibal, B.A., and Howlin’ Mad Murdock for a whole new face-punching, gun-toting, van-wielding, explosion-ing adventure! I, for one, could not be more excited, and I look forward to chomping bag after bag of overly buttered popcorn at what will surely be a mindless but sinfully enjoyable action extravaganza. But recently I was posed a question regarding the film that left me dumbfounded: What happened to Liam Neeson? The question was laden with derogatory pity at his being cast in The A-Team with consideration of his previous film work. What happened to Liam Neeson? Not one damn thing!
This question was clearly posed by someone who holds his performance in Schindler’s List in the highest regard. Granted, this is completely warranted reverence as he is phenomenal in it. Or possibly this inquisitive soul’s only exposure to Neeson is his devoted-father character from Love Actually, which, again, was a fantastic performance. If this was your only exposure to him, you might see his inclusion in the cast of The A-Team as a fall from grace, or that he’s slumming it. But the fact of the matter is that Neeson has been quietly building up a career that solidifies him as one of cinema’s greatest badasses and makes him pitch-perfect for this part.
In 1983, he played Keegan in the immortally bad but inescapably cool Krull. While this may not have been a role for which he would ever gain recognition from the Academy, his unstoppably awesome warrior served as an introduction to Neeson’s ability to play characters that could kick more than their fair share of ass. Seven years later he played a scarred superhero in Sam Rami’s Darkman. Sure, it wasn’t the most well-received superhero flick of all time, and thusly why most people probably forget it, but it doesn’t change the fact that he still rocked the worlds of more than a few villains.
What then followed was a misleading sequence of heavy dramas (Ethan Frome, Schindler’s List, Nell, Les Miserables) for which his performances were highly praised and, quite sadly, his status as a irrepressible badass was forgotten. But then he played Scottish folk hero Rob Roy, Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn, and Priest Vallon in Gangs of New York. Somehow, even sticking it to the Trade Federation in a galaxy far, far away did not cement his badass qualifications in the minds of audiences (perhaps because of how God-awful Episode I truly was), because there were plenty of detractors who did not agree with his being cast in Batman Begins -- a doubt Liam put to rest with a steely vengeance.
But it was his role as the desperate, former-spy father in Taken that synergized all his previous work and set him atop the list of toughest mofos in cinema. Taken has a runtime of under 90 minutes, which is a direct result of his character’s single-mindedness and refusal to be hindered by anyone or anything. Neeson leaves a trail of destruction and corpses across Paris the likes of which had never been seen. I love Taken because I think it’s a throwback to the stripped-down, balls-out revenge films of the '70s and it’s the crown jewel of Neeson’s badass repertoire.
The reason I formulate this seemingly rambling dissection of the man’s career is that I honestly believe The A-Team is a perfect film for him and Hannibal Smith the perfect character. The A-Team is sort of an extension of his character from Taken; it is a group of people that have a job to do and will find the most effective way to get it done no matter the cost or risk. Granted, the tone of the film is far less severe than that of Taken, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is neither outside Neeson’s wheelhouse nor beneath him. I’m not going to pretend I think The A-Team will satisfy a sophisticated palate or excel artistically, but that should never preclude the casting a truly talented actor. Schindler’s List, Love Actually, and Les Miserables may represent some rather high art within his canon, but Episode I demonstrated how a great actor could still be great in a terrible film.
I see the casting of Liam Neeson as Hannibal Smith as a decision inspired by, and the perfect culmination of, all the badass characters he has played. Smith is a cocksure leader whose swagger suggests a lifetime of kicking ass. Neeson will easily embody Smith given his backlog of macho characters and could actually serve in a leadership capacity to a much younger cast who don’t have between them the number of hardcore action-hero roles under their belts that Neeson has himself. Neeson could not be more perfect for this film, and given his past roles and the exemplary execution of each one, regardless of the qualities of the films, he is not slumming it for The A-Team. Instead, he is bringing a measure of cool class to an otherwise whacky, over-the-top actioner.