In theaters nationwide, Liam Neeson today starts playing a dangerous game of Strangers on a Train in the breakneck action thriller The Commuter, engaging in what’s become his screen stock-in-trade for the past decade since the worldwide hit Taken (2008), playing an ordinary guy who finds that his latter-day respectable, everyday life – following a hard-edged past – is turned topsy-turvy and he’s plunged into reluctant commando mode. (Note that the Schindler’s List Oscar® nominee’s character manifest has hardly been one-note in this period, as it follows two marvelous, undervalued turns in the past year: his affecting vocalizing of the title character in A Monster Calls and his stirringly principled embodiment of Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought down the White House.) Shades of these two threads in his roles – the decent man with a personal morality that couldn’t be violated (despite any momentary vulnerabilities or temptations) and the take-charge, go-for-broke rogue with an almost electric male magnetism – are evident in the work on view in two Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray titles. He first boarded the TT express in Spring 2015, as part of the rebellious crew of the Mel Gibson-Anthony Hopkins historical epic The Bounty (1984, now sold-out). He later booked passage on the suspenseful ride called A Prayer for the Dying (1987), the adaptation of Jack Higgins’ novel about an IRA assassin (Mickey Rourke) whose conscience – after the horribly tragic deaths of schoolchildren in a countryside bombing – compels him to abandon his lethal life and flee the UK. Neeson is effectively cast as Rourke’s bespectacled, scholarly looking comrade-in-arms who finds the prospect of having to hunt down and terminate his fugitive friend – wanted by the police, a local crime kingpin and his superiors – a daunting and dreadful task. One sequence, shot in an autumnal leaf-strewn park, is particularly powerful and predictive of the future screen appeal of Neeson, considering that the temperamental Rourke, a unqiue talent then at the height of his stardom, was the “power player” on the project and Neeson an ensemble supporting actor. Liam Neeson: The First Biography author Ingrid Millar reports: “Director Mike Hodges recalled one particular scene which called for a confrontation between Neeson and Rourke, with whom he was pleading to return to the arms of the IRA. Rourke had adamantly refused to rehearse throughout filming, so it fell to Neeson to improvise as Rourke set the tone of the scene, which called for lengthy sessions of retakes: the rapport was spot-on, the words flowed like wine, the scene went smoothly.”
Neeson’s next TT trip pulls into the station January 23, and the journey he takes is as dizzying as a rushing locomotive: playing the hunky, soulful romantic interest of each of two maritally dispossessed Manhattan women in Woody Allen’s stormy and blistering Husbands and Wives (1992). As a thoughtful “regular guy” who, in the wake of the breakup of the marriage of the combative Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis), which in turn sows doubt in the union of Gabe and Judy (Allen and Mia Farrow), unwittingly arouses the amorous attentions of both Sally and Judy, Neeson told Entertainment Weekly in 1994 that stillness in the midst of chaos was the route to choose: “‘Woody Allen is not the kind of director who interprets your character’s motives for you,’ Neeson says, ‘so I just decided to play it the way I would if I were in that situation (a love triangle) in real life. Just to be a bit of calm in the midst of the situation whirling around me.’” Which lady he winds up is left open until the very end, but in the view of biographer Miller: “The part Neeson played gives a great screen example of which he is so attractive to so many women. Amid a maelstrom of neuroses, Neeson plays the only sane character, a passionate, romantic Irishman. To female filmgoers, this was true-to-type Liam Neeson, the heartthrob with a heart. You could practically hear the palpitations in the audience as his dulcet Irish tones envelop the woman he loves, wrapping her with his sincerity: ‘I’m from a different era.’ Here he was the good old fashioned romantic hero, the stuff of millions of women’s… dreams. The fan club continued to swell, if not positively pulsate.” As The Commuter barrels toward audience satisfaction and box-office exultation, you can punch your ticket for a home-theater Neeson fix via A Prayer for the Dying now and the soon-to-arrive Husbands and Wives on terrific TT discs.