Liam Neeson had 16 years with his wife, the luminous, accomplished actress Natasha Richardson, before she died in a 2009 skiing accident at Mont Tremblant. This isn’t the kind of tragedy anyone gets over easily, or quickly, because no one ever really gets over the shocking death of their spouse. (They have two children as well, which multiplies total anguish by an exponential emotional value.) What Neeson had in 2009 that a scant few men in his shoes have is one of the greatest means of exorcizing grief on the planet: The movies. In 2012, Neeson joined Joe Carnahan for the Narc director’s fifth movie, The Grey, and perhaps in punching wolves found solace from his pain.
The Grey wasn’t the first time Neeson, a classically trained actor of prestige and great skill, played a stoic hero in an action or action-adjacent film. His Old Man Badass run started in 2008 with Taken, a franchise he would return to two more times, and continued with 2010’s The A-Team. Neeson kept it up with projects ranging from good to goofy to garbage through the decade: Unknown, Taken 2 and Taken 3, Run All Night, The Commuter, Cold Pursuit, The Ice Road and the 2014 trifecta of Taken 3, Non-Stop and A Walk Among the Tombstones. Next month, his latest, Blacklight, will drop in theaters. Maybe he got the taste for ass-kicking thanks to Pierre Morel and can’t stop chasing it.
Among these releases, The Grey is the standout for a number of reasons: It’s the most tightly paced, the best-acted by Neeson, the most unsparing, the most evocative. Above all else, though, the film has patho—not just in the script or on the screen but in the intangible, unpredictable details that the movies derive their magic from. The pathos doesn’t belong to Carnahan. It belongs to Neeson.
Carnahan originally wanted to cast Bradley Cooper as John Ottway, the grizzled sharpshooter/security officer/survivalist responsible for keeping the drillers working for an Alaskan oil outfit safe. There wasn’t much reason given as to why. Cooper simply dropped out and Carnahan rang Neeson. Here we are today. Imagining Cooper in the shoes that Neeson wound up wearing is impossible, not because Cooper isn’t a good, multifaceted actor but because he’s 23 years Neeson’s junior, which ill-fits the character’s personality and arc. John Ottway works because he’s been around. He’s seen some shit. He’s also lived long enough to love a woman so much that life without her is a bum deal he’d rather not take.
Look: Cooper really is talented. Maybe he could’ve found a way to respect the brief despite his youth. But Neeson carries with him the seasoned detachment Ottway is written around. When he says “we’re all fucked” in that gravelly, enchanting voice of his, so unique that it’s inseparable from the man, we in the audience feel the baritone impact of his words. Neeson had the qualifications needed to play Ottway. He also had personal loss to draw on as a resource.
It’s a common read that Ottway gave Neeson an avenue for channeling his bereavement. The connection between fiction and real life was obvious when the film opened in 2012. But with the long view, The Grey lets us see exactly what makes Old Man Badass cinema work and why so much of it fails to satisfy: A stake in the material. This is not to say that actors getting on in years must be widowers in order to play wary, dispassionate action heroes—that would be ridiculous. It’s called “acting” for a reason. Plenty of films in The Grey’s niche work well, several of them Neeson’s, possibly the most prolific old man action hero star. Most recently, for instance, Bob Odenkirk kicked imperial tons of ass in Nobody. Odenkirk doesn’t have the same sad sack life as his character. It isn’t a prerequisite.
Prerequisite or no, Neeson’s state of mourning means The Grey has something no other movie in the same category has. A good director with a good cast and crew can pull off all manner of illusory feats during production. What can’t be replicated through that aforementioned movie magic is real, authentic feeling. Neeson is giving his viewers a character in The Grey, but he voices his own suffering through the character instead of performing it. His work as Ottway is still a performance, of course. Speaking of “acting,” Neeson has not fled from a pack of ravenous wolves in the middle of a harsh snowstorm. His job is fooling us all into believing that he is doing all of that. He doesn’t have to “act” the same way when he’s expressing Ottway’s heartache, of course, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t acting.
The Grey functions as art therapy for Neeson, and this secondary purpose gives the film an entirely different tone from the films it relates to. But the collision between Carnahan’s writing and the death of Natasha Richardson is unintentional, in the sense that Carnahan wrote The Grey divorced from Richardson’s passing. In fact, his inspiration for The Grey is “Ghost Walker,” the short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who co-wrote the film with him. But Carnahan’s inspiration for casting Neeson in The Grey is what happened to Richardson, and what he thought that Neeson needed in order to cope. Movies don’t often intersect with their stars’ lives the way that The Grey intersects with Neeson’s. But it’s the intersection that makes the film the apex of Old Man Badass cinema, and one of the gems in Neeson’s storied career.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.