Liam Neeson doesn't make movies for the critics – he makes them for the fans. And he has a lot them – especially in the UAE, where more than 2,000 people turned up to see his latest action caper Taken 3, three days ahead of general release, and with the ageing action legend in the house.
All 10 screens of Dubai’s Novo Cineplex sold out well in advance for Monday’s UAE premiere, where Neeson walked the red carpet and made a welcome speech inside each packed auditorium before the reels rolled.
It’s a big deal. The event marks the first time a major international star has attended a UAE movie launch outside of a film festival. And instead of being a typical black-tie, invite-only premiere, this was open to anyone who could stump up Dh100 for a ticket.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea, hopefully it will set a trend for other actors and movie stars to come here,” Neeson said, beaming during an interview earlier in the day. “The fans here have been phenomenal.”
It's lucky Neeson makes movies for the fans, because while cinema-goers have embraced the movie with open arms, critics have been brutal and unanimous in slamming Taken 3. At the time of writing, the film had averaged a 12 percent critic's approval rating on review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes (yet an audience score of 72 per cent).
“I don’t read the reviews,” confesses Neeson, an Academy Award nominee. “This is not a critic’s film, it’s a fan’s film, so I haven’t been reading those – I’ve been avoiding them.
“Look, it’s good entertainment, popcorn-fare. It’s not pretentious, it’s not trying to be something it isn’t, it’s a good simple little thriller. That’s what we set out to do and that’s what we delivered.”
That "simple little thriller" pulled in US$93 million (Dh342 million) in its first four days of global release. The $40.4 million opening weekend, when it topped the US box office, made it the second-most successful American January opening on record. Told this, Neeson adopts the throaty voice any fan would recognise as belonging to Taken's hero, Bryan Mills, and barks "What was the first?". It was last year's Ride Along, Bryan.
This was a rare moment of humour during our meeting with the Irish-born superstar, in an otherwise softly spoken conversation that touched on everything from religion to gun control.
On the latter, he is outspoken, especially in light of recent events in Paris.
“First off – my thoughts, prayers and heart are with the deceased,” he says. “There are too many guns out there, especially in America – the population is around 320 million and there are more than 300 million guns privately owned. It’s a disgrace. Every week we pick up a newspaper and see yet another few kids have been killed in schools.”
One can’t help noting the looming billboards of Neeson, no doubt stationed up and down the country, brandishing a rather prominent firearm.
“You’re quite right, you can sling whatever at me,” he reasons. “But I grew up watching cowboy movies, I didn’t end up a killer. You see a character like Bryan Mills going out with guns and taking revenge – it’s fantasy, it’s the movies, and I think it could give people a great release from the stresses of life. It doesn’t mean they’re all going to go out and get a gun.”
After moving to Hollywood from Ireland in the late 1980s, Neeson made a name for himself as the star of Steven Spielberg's Holocaust drama Schindler's List – of its 12 Academy Awards nominations, Neeson's nod for Best Actor was one of just five it didn't win. He ranks this alongside his role in the historical drama Michael Collins, as the eponymous Irish patriot, as his best work.
The first Taken film, released in 2008, kickstarted a career resurgence that reinvented Neeson as the box office-baiting, gun-toting hero of Unbroken, Non-Stop, and the Taken sequels. Despite turning 63 in June, how much longer can he keep up the action hero role?
“As long as my knees hold up. I’ll give it a couple more years I guess – after that, audiences will expect you on a zimmerframe for the next one.”
But he rules out the idea of doing a Sly Stallone or Mel Gibson and taking the director’s seat.
“I just don’t have a director’s mind, a director’s head,” he said. “I like to read a script, do it in five, six weeks, and leave.”
Embraced by fans, massacred by critics, Taken 3 is clearly commanding headlines and raising audiences's pulses alike. And after three instalments, the franchise is likely to be the role most moviegoers remember Neeson for. Despite marketing material to the contrary, there are a number of key plot devices at the close of the new movie that leave things open for a fourth chapter. Would he be up for another run around?
“Listen – for me, I think it’s over. The poster says ‘it all ends here’, and for me, I think that’s it.”
But that’s what you said last time, I point out.
“I did – watch this space.”