Die Hard on a train? Now it’s Liam Neeson on a train, says Tom Fordy.

I once met Liam Neeson, during a press junket for his 2014 terrorism-on-a-plane movie Non-Stop. I wanted to ask him about post-9/11 anxiety in action cinema, but the tabloid journalist next to me set the tone by asking, “Have you ever shagged anyone on an aeroplane?”

Neeson chewed on a toothpick, classic action star style, and screwed up his face so it was extra grizzled. “Who’s been saying that about me?”

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Sat in a way-too-small hotel room chair, the 6’4” Neeson looked like a great corner of a man, all giant spindly legs and sharp knees jutting outward. As a short, round bloke I’ve always been impressed by the dimensions of a much taller man. It struck me that if, like in one of his action movies, a gang of gun-toting terrorists barged into hotel room, put two barrels between the tabloid journo’s eyes, and tried to take us hostage, Neeson could easily snap their necks and lead us to safety.

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The new Die Hard: Liam Neeson in Non-Stop.

Because that’s what he does nowadays. In Non-Stop, he plays an air marshall who sorts out a blackmail/hostage situation on a transatlantic flight; in his new film The Commuter – out in cinemas tomorrow – he plays a family man who sorts out a blackmail/hostage situation on his commuter train home (after a bad day at the office, no less). Put him in any situation – plane, train, automobile, or hotel press junket – and he’ll shoot the shit out of it and save the day.

He’s a hard case; an action hero. Liam Neeson is the new Die Hard.

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Die Hard was once the great staple of Hollywood action. Its basic conceit – the lone hero trapped in a location with some bad bastards – was loosely repeated in sequels, but became the industry standard for mid-range action flicks. It was replicated so often, that many movies were best described (and no doubt pitched) as “Die Hard in a something”.

We had Die Hard in a boat (Under Siege), Die Hard on a train (erm, Under Siege 2), Die Hard on a bus (Speed), Die Hard in the mountains (Cliffhanger), Die Hard in a school (Toy Soliders), Die Hard in a hockey rink (Sudden Impact), Die Hard on a plane (Air Force One, Con Air, and Executive Decision – take your pick), Die Hard in a prison (The Rock), and, more recently, Die Hard in the White House (Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down).

new die hard
The old Die Hard.

Now though, it’s Liam Neeson on a plane (Non-Stop), Liam Neeson on a train (The Commuter), Liam Neeson in the city (Run All Night), and even Liam Neeson in the woods (The Grey).

But one look at the Taken movies – his biggest, most brilliantly shit action series – and you’ll see that Neeson isn’t bound by the Die Hard rules as other action films were. The selling point is not Neeson trapped in a location with some bad bastards (though he does tend to lean towards a good old fashioned hostage situation or kidnapping – “I will find you, and I will kill you”), the selling point is Liam Neeson himself – a one-man franchise who, like the “Die Hard in a….” before him, has come to define the mid-range action movie.

It was Neeson and the first Taken in 2008 that kicked off the trend for “geri-action” – action movies starring middle-aged stars in the Semtex-lobbing twilights of their careers. The Expendables followed, opening the door for the likes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme to have a mainstream comeback – relics from the pneumatic era of action allowed out to play once again, on the proviso that they took the piss out of themselves while tearing off bad guys’ heads and bashing down walls.

For a more contemporary style of action cinema, the ridiculously successful – not to mention just plain ridiculous – Fast & Furious franchise found its billion-dollar niche by thrusting as much testosterone into any given situation and seeing what happens (which is how cars end up being driven out of moving planes and hopping between skyscrapers).

new die hard
Ridiculous testosterone: Fast & Furious

It’s all done with a nod and wink, of course. Modern action cinema is about more than oiled muscles and cracking skulls; it demands personality, and any for ultra-machismo to be counterbalanced with a keen self-awareness of how utterly ludicrous such excessive masculinity really is. Roll all of those things into a giant, hulking bundle and you get Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the biggest action star of the modern world.

But in this age of post-modern, tongue-in-cheek action, Liam Neeson’s films are refreshingly po-faced; they take themselves very seriously indeed. Sure, he might crash the odd train, or blow up a building now and again, but the real pleasure of his action movies are something much more simplistic and old school: Liam Neeson having a good old fucking beat-up (as we used to say round our way) with a baddie.

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It’s easy to joke about the geri-action movies and write off Neeson’s born-again action status as a mid-life crisis, but the 65-year-old Neeson is a perfect star for this kind of no-nonsense fare. It’s a middle-aged style of action film. The Commuter even plays on middle-age anxieties: fired from his job, his character has a family to support and two mortgages, while reflecting on missed opportunities and 10 years wasted in a job that’s shit-canned him before he could pick up his pension or gold watch. It’s no wonder that when Vera Farmiga slinks aboard the train and offers him $100,000 for a bit of dodgy detective work, he gets dragged into a life-or-death criminal conspiracy. Cue some decent punch-ups, growly voiced exposition, and the obligatory dangling from a train.

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The new Die Hard: Neeson and Vera Farmiga in The Commuter.

The Commuter, like the rest of Neeson’s middle-aged actioners, is a film that calls back to an era when the genre wasn’t lampooning masculinity, but revelling in it.

Not that we necessarily needed a new Die Hard. The old Die Hard was doing just fine until it shat the bed beyond all comprehension with A Good Day To Die Hard AKA Die Hard 5 AKA Die Hard In Russia.

(Some would argue that Die Hard 4 AKA Die Hard On The Internet killed it off, but I’ll defend that film until I’m blue in the face).

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And Bruce Willis could still have kept his spot as the everyman’s favourite action bloke of he hadn’t stopped trying. These days it looks like he can’t be bothered to bend over and pick one of his straight-to-DVD films out of the bargain basket, let alone take on a terrorist ring singlehandedly.

So now we have Liam Neeson, the new Die Hard. Not that his action films are all particularly good. We know he can act – this is Oskar bleedin’ Schindler for Christ’s sake – and there are decent dust-ups, but The Commuter is, like Taken, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night before it, weighed down by the kind of plotting and dialogue that would make John McClane’s potato-headed son from Die Hard 5 wince.

But it is what it is. And for an old school, middle-aged action movie that’s all it needs to be: Liam Neeson on a train.

The Commuter is in UK cinemas Friday January 19.

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