Still, in their first conversation together, Morel needed to know if Neeson would embrace the movie’s physicality and handle the majority of the gunplay and mixed martial arts that Bryan eventually lays down. “He was like, ‘I’ll do everything I can myself,’” Morel says. Outside of several sequences that required precarious stunt work, Neeson stuck to his word, performing his own fight choreography and subverting audience expectations in the process. “It could have been Sylvester [Stallone], but then you’d see it coming. There’s an element of surprise to that,” Morel says. “It proved that a guy in his 50s could do that.”
Though Neeson’s middle-aged machismo helped secure his action-hero credentials, it was his first-act speech that pushed the movie into the pop-cultural stratosphere. In the midst of hearing his daughter get taken over the phone, Bryan addresses her faceless abductors with an impromptu threat, methodically explaining that over his long career, he has acquired “a very particular set of skills,” which make him a nightmare for the people he pursues. Then he snarls a promise that sets the movie into high gear: “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
The speech became the most memorable part of the movie, but Morel initially thought it might be too cheesy. “When we read the script together, it was like, ‘Wow, that’s tough to shoot. You sure we want to keep that line?’” Ultimately, it came down to tone, pivoting Neeson’s warmth and searching eyes into a death stare. “If you have that line delivered by an actor who is a known action hero, then it becomes a movie trailer punchline,” Morel says. “Delivered by Liam, it becomes something else.” After defining the character and the emotion of the moment, Morel remembers Neeson nailing the speech in one take. “Right away, emotionally, it caught me almost by surprise,” he says. “I didn’t expect to be so shocked.”
The result was a new entry into the Hollywood famous movie lines pantheon. Combined with Neeson’s proven fighting chops, the speech’s ubiquity inadvertently made Neeson an approachable avatar for family-saving and ass-kicking, a template that quickly inspired more generic avengers and protectors capable of going to dark places if given the push. “Hollywood is that machine,” Morel says. “Once you become that brand, it’s hard to go back to something else. That’s what people expect from you.”
In some ways, Neeson’s fall down the dadsploiitation rabbit hole feels like an ongoing cathartic practice, a way to come to terms with his own personal tragic past. More often than not, his characters need to reconcile past traumas, fear they’ve grown too far apart from their loved ones, and must right the wrongs of the world as penance. In these scenarios, feeling estranged and irrelevant might as well be a vocation. It’s probably why Neeson has pulled off so many of them. Nobody does remorse at 100 miles per hour better than him.
At some point, he’s got to slow down. Retribution might be the start. Neeson’s only requirement in this movie is to stay in his seat and drive, a nice change-up from his labor intensive resume. “When I have to reach for the walker to go and beat up two guys, I’ll know: ‘No, Liam, the audience is really going to laugh this time,’” he told EW. But with three more thrillers already lined up, Neeson is keeping his foot on the gas.