It might be hard to recall, but Liam Neeson wasn't always Hollywood's go-to badass. Once upon a time, he was the star of more subdued fare, such as Nell and Schindler's List. Then his on-screen daughter was Taken and his career -- and the world of movies -- has never been the same.
A special set of skills
Taken was made by 20th Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA) for $25 million and was at one point expected to go directly to DVD. It didn't. The movie hit theaters Jan. 30, 2009, and made $24.7 million its opening weekend. That number would balloon to $145 million domestically and $220 million worldwide, minting Neeson as a bankable lead.
More movies began coming Neeson's way, all of the action variety. He fronted the big-screen adaptation of The A-Team (also for Fox), portrayed Zeus in Clash of the Titans for Warner Brothers, and headlined thrillers Unknown (Warner Brothers) and The Grey (Open Road). All of those movies saw strong openings -- The Grey was the only one that didn't top $20 million in its opening weekend, and it just missed at $19.6 million.
It was no longer even a question of if Liam Neeson was bankable; it was question of what mark he would break next. Turns out it was his own, as Taken 2 opened in 2012 to nearly $50 million and led to the timeless tweet, "The leading cause of death for Albanian men ages 18-35 is Liam Neeson."
That brings us to today as Universal's (a subsidiary of Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA)) Non-Stop is set to take off in theaters. The movie centers on Neeson as an air marshal who must stop a terrorist attack while en route from New York to London. Make no mistake, Neeson is the star despite the pedigree of co-stars Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, and Lupita Nyong'o. Estimates have the movie making between $20 million and $25 million, in line with earlier expectations.
For Neeson, who at age 61 never imagined he'd be an action star, this will be his fourth action film in six years to hit the box office. And that success has carried with him outside the genre. This year, he lent his voice to characters in The Nut Job and The Lego Movie, both animated features and both among the biggest first quarter hits of 2014. In fact, Nut Job went on to become the highest-grossing film in its distributor's (Open Road) three-year history, topping the mark Neeson set in 2012 with The Grey.
An 'aging' trend?
So what's next for Neeson and how will it affect the industry? The actor has three more action thrillers on his roster, including A Walk Among the Tombstones (Universal), Run All Night (Warner Brothers), and of course Taken 3 (Fox). He's also attached to expected hits like Martin Scorsese's 2015 drama Silence and this summer's comedy western A Million Ways to Die in the West (Universal) from Ted's Seth MacFarlane.
This doesn't just translate to dollars for the studio, it shows that older actors are still relevant in Hollywood, which was becoming apparent even before Sylvester Stallone's Expendables franchise took off. Neeson carved out a new niche for himself in Hollywood and it's caused a ripple effect. Taken laid the groundwork for the success of Expendables and Bruce Willis' Red (at least the first one), and gave new opportunities to action vets such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Costner.
Granted, not all of those movies were hits -- in fact, the less said about movies like The Last Stand the better. But the point is that Taken's success allowed for those movies to be put in production.
Audience tastes will undoubtedly change, but for now, Neeson is a solid model for box office success. Until that changes, expect to see Neeson continue his cinematic rampage.
Brett Gold has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.