Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington: the “grey tigers” of Hollywood

There’s still a place in Hollywood for a lone-wolf action hero of a greyer hue, says Jeremy Aspinall

Action stars like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren et al may have been pensioned off to The Expendables movies (bar Steven Seagal, who’s too oaken even for that franchise), but there’s still a place for a lone-wolf hero of a greyer hue.

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The Jason Bourne films were certainly a game-changer for the action genre (see how the ante was upped when James Bond was rebooted with Casino Royale in 2006) and one side effect has been the box-office success of “the grey tigers” – stars like Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington.

OK, 50-something Charles Bronson was something of a trailblazer back in the 70s when a career that included classics like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Once upon a Time in the West went off at a tangent with the controversially violent vigilante thriller Death Wish. His subsequent movies were generally more of the same and usually featured Old Stoneface blowing the bad guys away with extreme prejudice.

Now we have Liam Neeson (Oscar nominated for Schindler’s List, lest we forget), whose starring role as a retired CIA agent with “a very particular set of skills” in Taken (2008) was a huge hit and established the one-time heart-throb as an ageing but nonetheless authentic macho man. Unknown, The Grey, Taken 2 and Non-Stop have confirmed his status and all feature the Irish actor running around like a (young) man possessed, comfortably battering or offing foes with Bronson-like efficiency. Although his latest, A Walk among the Tombstones is not so much a balls-out shoot-em-up but a tough, gritty private eye tale, it should still validate his position as the go-to action hero of an older vintage.

Denzel Washington has been dipping his toe into the genre for even longer – his uncredited film debut was actually as a mugger in the aforementioned Death Wish in 1974. Although the New Yorker is a two-time Oscar winner who’s given powerhouse performances in Cry Freedom, Malcolm X and The Hurricane, there’s a fair number of action flicks on his CV, many under the direction of the late Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Déjà Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Unstoppable). Washington has now succeeded in balancing award-attracting stuff like Training Day, American Gangster and Flight with well-made popcorn yarns like Safe House and 2 Guns.

His latest is a reboot of the old 80s TV show The Equalizer in which Edward Woodward played former spook Robert McCall who used his particular set of skills to clean up the mean streets of New York. It took a leap of faith to believe that an ageing, not exactly athletic Woodward could pull that off, but when you have charisma and actorly gravitas, it can be done. Washington has those qualities in spades, despite the fact we meet his version of McCall at his day job in a local Boston DIY store. But fret not; when Russian bad guys start to take liberties, his McCall is well up to the task, no matter how grey he is. 

A Walk among the Tombstones opens on Friday 19th September

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The Equalizer opens on Friday 26th September