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Will Liam Neeson’s New Thriller Go Beyond His Usual Set of Skills?

Neeson can make any movie he wants at this stage in his career, but the grass is actually greener when he steps out of his action-oriented comfort zone.
By  · Published on May 4th, 2018

Neeson can make any movie he wants at this stage in his career, but the grass is actually greener when he steps out of his action-oriented comfort zone.

Liam Neeson is about to take more bad guys to task with the announcement of his newest film role. Unsurprisingly, he’s doing another thriller. But could this movie have less of an action-oriented, “special skills” slant than we’re used to seeing from him lately?

According to Deadline, the Taken actor will headline Charlie Johnson in the Flamesan adaptation of the Michael Ignatieff novel of the same name. Neeson is set to play the titular character in the film, a BBC war correspondent who has to face a serious personal reckoning after witnessing the death of an innocent woman while covering civil unrest in the Congo. As he seeks out the truth behind such a brutal, senseless act, Charlie Johnson finds himself caught up in the throes of “murder, corruption, and violence.” Charlie Johnson in the Flames will be directed by Tarik Saleh (The Nile Hilton Incident) from a script by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road).

Whether Neeson is testing any new waters with Charlie Johnson in the Flames is debatable. On one hand, Saleh is an intriguing director who — even without many film credits to his name — has proven capable of helming effective thrillers. The Nile Hilton Incident is a chilling noir tribute with its morally grey protagonist navigating the lack of distinction between his duties as a cop and his own quest for redemption.

These themes could very well be adapted in Charlie Johnson in the Flames, if the original book is anything to go by. Deadline’s summary of the movie adaptation notes a change in setting from Ignatieff’s novel, which takes place in the Balkans, but the through-line of corruption that triggers the key events in the story is definitely transposable. Such inherent political messages could lend more depth to the story’s eponymous leading man, which would be a change from Neeson’s protagonists who are largely fueled by personal motivations.

But there’s still an elephant in the room: Charlie Johnson in the Flames will involve a character doggedly seeking out the truth to avenge a woman’s death. Considering how a number of his popular action films feature similarly disempowered women, this narrative element recalls an unwelcome refrain. The film sounds like it will satisfy all the requirements of one of the more generic movies that have provided Neeson with a steady paycheck for years.

Neeson’s regular acting protocol consists of peppering voice work in family-friendly fare between a smattering of action roles that are very similar to each other. The moment a Neeson character loses a loved one — most likely a wife or daughter — in one of his movies, what follows next is pretty self-explanatory. He hunts down whoever is responsible for that loss or he projects it onto some other adrenaline-fueled endeavor before he is able to rise from the ashes as a new man ready to move on from said tragedy.

This is a repetitive tactic, but in truth Neeson has been in the movie business long enough that if he wants to do action movies for the rest of his life — and he evidently does — no one would ever stop him. He has enough charisma as a leading actor to make us like him in any one of his same-y roles anyway. Still, I can’t help but recall a recent year in particular that gave us more from Neeson — something different — and that’s 2016.

First off, “different” obviously doesn’t equate to being “good.” Neeson had an uncredited role as the narrator for the dreadful Chris Hemsworth vehicle The Huntsman: Winter’s War, and didn’t really dazzle anyone in his most action-oriented film of that year, Operation Chromite. The disappointment of the latter wasn’t so much his fault as it was the result of a clunky script though, which is a small consolation.

But more memorably, A Monster Calls and Silence came out in 2016 too. Neeson wasn’t afforded the same starring capacity in those films as he usually is in action thrillers — despite what the Silence promotional campaign would have us believe — but that actually worked in his favor. This is mainly because the characters he plays are refreshing. The monster in A Monster Calls is a darker version of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia films, but it’s a character with grit to its wisdom, less likable and far more imposing and unsettling. In contrast, Silence presents a subtler Neeson, someone who isn’t yelling over a phone or shoving a gun in a bad guy’s face. Instead, Silence is a story where the concept of good and evil is tied up with more complicated moral consequences; it is a real examination of ideology.

Perhaps Charlie Johnson in the Flames could tread that territory to some extent too. However, we can only seek so little solace in this when the film’s potential to devolve into another snarly Neeson performance piece is equally high.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)