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Going Neeson: 14 aging actors who should star in action franchises

Seven years ago, Liam Neeson appeared in the surprise smash Taken, defying all conventional wisdom about the average age of action stars and the career trajectories of “serious” actors. Though there was some precedent for this casting—Neeson had appeared in blockbusters before, usually as a mentor figure, and had wielded a weapon in Rob Roy—there weren’t a ton of prior examples of someone making this kind of transition so late into their Hollywood career. Now everyone from Sean Penn to Kevin Costner to John Cusack has tried to develop a particular set of (bone-breaking) skills. But is there a new Neeson among them? Below, we single out 14 aging actors we’d love to see headline an action franchise. Some, admittedly, are more likely than others.

1. Bryan Cranston

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Even with top-tier TV shows operating at a much higher prestige level than they did 20-plus years ago, it still can be difficult for television actors to make the transition into major film careers. Bryan Cranston has parlayed his well-known gig playing Breaking Bads iconic Walter White into a respectable filmography, racking up character parts in blockbusters like Godzilla and awards pictures like Argo. But a middle-aged man best known for playing middle-aged men probably isn’t going get to his own starring vehicle—unless he picks up the phone and threatens to rip apart some terrorists, Neeson-style. It would be fascinating to apply Cranston’s particular set of skills to cinematic junk food; some of his most intense and wrenching scenes on Breaking Bad (which maintained a pulpy edge for much of its run) involved him making threats to his enemies or even his own family. Taken has shown that the pre-killing monologues can be more memorable than the follow-through, and the former Walter White has middle-aged bona fides that the imposing, sometimes regal Neeson lacks. Cranston, then, is just a few fudged scuffles away from action-movie stardom. [Jesse Hassenger]

2. Daniel Day-Lewis

It sounds like something Saturday Night Live might cook up for an easy laugh: Daniel Day-Lewis, the only man to win three Best Actor Oscars, ditches prestige productions to drop bodies instead. Lord knows the famously committed Method performer doesn’t need a new career path, nor is it easy to imagine him enjoying himself on the set of a Pierre Morel movie. (Though enjoyment, to be fair, doesn’t seem to factor much into the guy’s process.) Setting aside the likelihood of the scenario, wouldn’t it still be insanely cool to see Day-Lewis apply his scary conviction to the role of a scary action hero? Last Of The Mohicans and Gangs Of New York have already proven that he looks great charging into battle, while My Left Foot demonstrates that he can start some shit, even when playing a character unable to walk or talk. Imagine, with a chill, the hurt Daniel Plainview could put on any mercenary foolish enough to cross him. Come to think of it, maybe this isn’t such a hot idea, considering how deeply Day-Lewis gets into character. There would be blood, on-screen and probably off. [A.A. Dowd]

3. Uma Thurman

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Uma Thurman has appeared in a variety of roles in her career, but she’ll be remembered for her work with Quentin Tarantino. Thurman always comes across like a Rembrandt in a motel room when she tries to play the “average woman,” but as a pitiless goddess of vengeance in the Kill Bill movies, she’s enthralling. Tall and long-limbed, she’s too gangly to be a ballerina, but she brings a lean, muscular grace to her sword fighting and hand-to-hand combat scenes, backed by a seriousness of purpose hidden behind a sardonic smile. The Bride was the role of a lifetime for Thurman, but rather than try to prove her range, she should embrace her action-movie destiny. (She’s already had the martial arts training.) As long as she stays away from superhero roles, that is—Batman & Robin and My Super Ex-Girlfriend were more than enough of that. [Katie Rife]

4. Viggo Mortensen

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Viggo Mortensen is picky when it comes to studio projects, having passed on everything from Wolverine to Man Of Steel’s General Zod. Still, he possesses an innate offbeat star quality that goes beyond being merely photogenic—a soft-spoken likability and warmth that’s never more effective than when it’s being subtly subverted. He also seems to have a thing for horses. Add in his fluency in Spanish, the language he grew up speaking as a Danish-American child in Argentina, and what you’ve got is the perfect star for a modern-day Western—the one classic American B-genre EuropaCorp hasn’t made a run at. (The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada is too much of a prestige production to count.) Though Mortensen is probably too busy running a small press and recording surprisingly good music to do it, damn what we wouldn’t give to see him class up a revenge flick about a border patrolman. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

5. Idris Elba

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Idris Elba is one of the coolest actors—maybe one of the coolest people—on the planet, and the roles that he’s chosen post-Wire have reflected that cool, perhaps too much. While it’s interesting to see him play unusual characters in the Thor movies and Prometheus, it would be even more gratifying if he’d take the lead in a big action movie (if not a Bond sequel), where he can remain cool while righteously crushing skulls. He should have his own Transporter series, where he can dress sharp but also take names. Maybe he just needs some karate lessons. [Josh Modell]

6. Benicio Del Toro

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Though The Usual Suspects wasn’t Benicio Del Toro’s first film, his performance as mumbly crook Fred Fenster felt so natural that it almost seemed like he was playing himself: a strange, somewhat shady, highly capable guy. In the decades since, Del Toro has continued to portray tough guys of varying shadiness and strangeness—from the world-weary lawman of Traffic to the deadly covert operative of The Hunted—and he’s mostly maintained the kind of low-key cool that sets him apart from other men of action. Tell a Benicio Del Toro character that a family member’s been kidnapped and he might not even raise his voice above a murmur as he wreaks righteous vengeance. [Noel Murray]

7. Gary Sinise

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Though Neeson’s most famous action series is French-made, there’s an undercurrent of very American conservatism running through Taken’s tales of an old-fashioned man’s man saving his family from the terrors of Europe. Real-life conservative Gary Sinise would make an interesting fit with this worldview, perhaps unearthing the subtext and placing it front and center. Politics aside, Sinise, who’s been busy with CSI: NY for much of the past decade, has the tense countenance of an action star. He hasn’t starred in a movie in a while, but after his work in Forrest Gump, he had a brief career as the designated surprise bad guy in a couple of star-driven thrillers. Audiences with long memories (or a natural distrust of Gary Sinise) might spend a Sinise action movie wondering if he might somehow turn out to be the villain in the end, especially because he has the ability to look genuinely pissed off in even his lightest on-screen moments. [Jesse Hassenger]

8. David Morse

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At 6 feet 4 inches, David Morse certainly has a stature fit for intimidation, and he’s put it to good use in the past, playing the occasional cop, criminal, prison guard, or potential serial killer. But the one-time St. Elsewhere star—a hulking character actor who tends to improve whatever he’s in—also has a capacity for paternal warmth, making him equally suited to dad duty. Why not combine those two qualities and unleash them on the type of foolhardy folk who are regularly testing Liam Neeson’s resolve? Morse would do wonders with the reoccurring role of a gentle giant who becomes not so gentle when his family is threatened. There are worse ways EuropaCorp could burn through that sweet Taken money than giving the aging lug a shot at franchise glory. [A.A. Dowd]

9. Dennis Quaid

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Dennis Quaid doesn’t get to be a badass very often, so he hasn’t gotten very good at it—yet. It makes sense, since he’s got that big, welcoming smile, and a penchant for playing sensitive souls. But imagine if his cantankerous lawman from Vegas—which you didn’t see, along with everybody else—could run free without the constraints of TV plots. He’d be great as a good guy who’s been pushed too far, though never a straight-up villain. Put his loved ones in danger and give him a shed filled with weapons from a shady past life, and let him kick ass with that million-dollar smile on his face. [Josh Modell]

10. Nicole Kidman

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Because Nicole Kidman has recently taken some curious parts in some not-so-great movies, her reputation as one of her generation’s most gifted actresses has taken a bit of a hit. But it’s also because of Kidman’s general gameness that she could become an action heroine overnight without raising too many eyebrows. Besides, offscreen the Aussie has spent a lot of time of late as a wife and mother, living a life of quiet domesticity in Nashville with country music star Keith Urban. It wouldn’t be hard at all for audiences to buy her as a woman pushed too far, willing do anything to protect her family. [Noel Murray]

11. Bill Paxton

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With his slow Texas drawl and frequently furrowed brow, Bill Paxton has spent much of his career playing easily underestimated characters, often with dark sides thinly disguised by affability. But since taking the lead in HBO’s Mormon melodrama Big Love, Paxton’s movie roles have largely been limited to creepy character turns, in films like 2 Guns and Nightcrawler. The actor will be turning 60 this year, and while he’s a valuable supporting player, there’s no reason why he couldn’t also be anchoring some kind of two-fisted action franchise, playing the grinning badass who’s nowhere near as dim as his adversaries assume. He’d be like the cinematic equivalent of Timothy Olyphant in TV’s Justified—only crustier. [Noel Murray]

12. Pam Grier

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Technically speaking, Pam Grier has already been an action hero. In the ’70s, she carved out a niche for herself playing the gun-toting title characters of blaxploitation classics like Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Friday Foster. But the actress eventually phased out of violent revenge cinema, reapplying her no-nonsense charisma to dramas and comedies, until Quentin Tarantino offered her the role of a lifetime in 1997’s Jackie Brown. At 65, she’s now just a few years older than Liam Neeson—the perfect age, perhaps, to play a settled-down vigilante forced to lock and reload in the face of systematic corruption. What better time than now for the resurrection of a blaxploitation star? [A.A. Dowd]

13. William Petersen

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Though CSI: Crime Scene Investigation made him a bona fide network-TV star, William Petersen has worked only sporadically in film, preferring Chicago theater; To Live And Die In L.A. and Manhunter—both released almost 30 years ago—remain some of his only big-screen starring roles. Which is a shame, because Petersen has a commanding presence that generally gets more intense as he reduces the volume of his voice. Though he’s probably the wrong physical type to be an action star, it’s not hard to imagine him bringing credibility and gravitas to a pulpy thriller—something he did for nine straight seasons on CBS. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

14. Noah Emmerich

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Built like a former college athlete, Noah Emmerich has played cops, soldiers, and G-men, but very few of the heroic loose-cannon variety. He excels when cast as the type of guy who’d rather be out of uniform than in it, gripping a can of beer instead of a pistol. But there’s also a darkness lurking behind his ordinary-Joe charisma, evident in everyone from the short-tempered family man he portrayed in Beautiful Girls (his breakthrough role) to the obsessed ex-lawman he brought to life in Little Children. With Emmerich having just turned 50, and his visibility at a high thanks to terrific weekly appearances on The Americans, maybe it’s time someone afforded him the opportunity to unleash his inner badass. He’d run with the role of a retired supercop dragged forcefully out of retirement, where those hints of intensity might explode into a righteous rampage. [A.A. Dowd]

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