Liam Neeson in Retribution I Lionsgate.

IT SEEMS RATHER quaint now but there was a time when Liam Neeson, who is returning to cinemas with the upcoming, Retribution, was a serious actor, working in acclaimed movies, directed by respected directors. It’s amazing how one film can change a career, heck maybe even change the cinema landscape. The film I’m referring to, of course, is Taken, in which a then 56-year-old Neeson played a dad “with a particular set of skills” who had to rescue his kidnapped daughter in Paris.

It was a tour de force performance from Neeson, who most audiences at that point knew from his serious turns in Schindler’s List, for which he nabbed an Oscar nomination and period pieces like Rob Roy and Michael Collins. He was also a doting single dad in Love Actually.

That was a lifetime ago. Taken was such a colossal word-of-mouth hit that Neeson’s career has never been the same since. Nor for that matter have action movies. The filmed spawned two sequels and ever since Neeson has largely played wronged men out for vengeance in films like Non-Stop, The Commuter, Run All Night, and Cold Pursuit. There are many more and his next three films, all thrillers, are sticking to this winning formula: In the Land of Saints and Sinners, Cold Storage and Thug. 

Of course, Neeson doesn’t have the genre, which has been coined  “dadsploitation movies” to himself. Keanu Reeves has now made four John Wick films, which began when mobsters killed his dog. With their lemming-like body counts and artistic martial arts sequences, these films have found a devoted following among both dads and younger men. Denzel Washington, meanwhile, is soon to be seen crushing sternums in cinemas in The Equalizer 3.

These films share a few things in common. They each feature actors aged between 50 and 75 who are no longer plausible as desirable leading men. In the case of Neeson and Washington, these guys possess serious acting pedigree with long lists of acclaimed credits. Reeves, while never really regarded as a thespian, has long been enshrined in the pop cultural firmament through iconic films such as Point Break, the Bill and Ted films, Speed and The Matrix films.

The other thing these films share is that there is zero chance of mistaking their theme or premise: vengeance. Retribution spells it out in its title, as does The Equaliser. We can’t be too far away from one of these guys making a film simply called ‘Revenge’ or ‘Getting Even’.

The Equalizer 3 I Sony Pictures

It’s worth mentioning that these films make serious bank, which is obviously why they keep getting made. Taken made $350 million; after a relatively weak $136 million for John Wick, the fourth instalment made $665 million, a huge figure for an R-rated action movie; and the first two Equalizer films each brought in nearly $300 million worldwide.

It’s at this point that we should probably draw a distinction between the ‘dadsploitation’ genre and ‘dad cinema’ more broadly, which includes films like the iconic Ford vs Ferrari and Top Gun: Maverick. These are certainly high octane, action-oriented films with aging protagonists but they are not bloody-vengeance tales. Their focus is more aspirational, whereas dadsploitation prioritises disciplined annihilation. Similarly, I wouldn’t include Jason Statham’s sizable body of work in the action field in this group; the plots are too flimsy, the action scenes over-produced and Statham lacks the gravitas that Neeson and Washington possess in spades.

While easy to poke fun at, dadsploitation has thoroughly revived the action genre from its ’80s heyday, when Arnie, Sly, Chuck Norris, Van Damme and Steven Seagal were one-man wrecking crews taking out whole armies with crossbows, machine guns and brute force. These guys were either rippling, juiced-up specimens of cartoonish masculinity, in the case of Arnie and Sly, or adept at roundhouse kicks and handy with a set nunchucks. The protagonists were also notable for their lack of vulnerability. This was in contrast to Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis, who both played more in the everyman space and therefore ate many a knuckle sandwich. I would argue that their relative vulnerability made them more appealing and relatable.

There’s perhaps something of that mix of skills and vulnerability that makes Neeson, Washington and Reeves attractive to modern audiences. Their age means they’re not overly formidable. They could conceivably get the shit kicked out of them but they possess the skills and experience from their former jobs to win the day. It’s the act of overcoming impossible odds that hooks audiences and appeals to suburban SUV-driving dads, a group that may feel underestimated and is probably overly concerned with waning virility, relevance and potency. It’s for this reason that I don’t think The Rock, who is 51, would succeed in these roles; there is never any doubt that he’s going to prevail, accept perhaps against Vin Diesel in Fast Five, which I personally didn’t buy, sorry Diesel-stans.

So, why aren’t younger actors getting these roles? Well, firstly it’s doubtful if dads would want to watch them. Most people, dads perhaps more than most, want to see themselves reflected on screen. A younger guy just doesn’t have the necessary gravitas or world-weariness to appeal to a tax accountant with a mortgage. Secondly, many younger guys are either making comic book movies, or going the other route and still in the trophy-chasing game. Little known fact: when you’re young you have a pesky desire to be taken seriously. This is when you seek out a buzzy director, do an accent, put on or lose 20 or 30 kg and generally subject yourself to all manner of hardships and indignities in search of a statuette—unless you’re Chris Hemsworth, who seems to be making coin with his Extraction series and to have largely given up on chasing awards.

Neeson and Washington, on the other hand, have nothing to prove. Their mantlepieces are full, while Reeves never really seemed to seek that kind of acclaim anyway. Of course, these guys may not have a whole lot of choice in what they’re putting out there. The continued success of these films means they’re probably going to keep getting offered variations on the same ruthless vengeance theme for the rest of their careers. Neeson said back in 2017 he wanted to retire from action films and yet, six years later, here we are.

The final question worth asking here is who will be the next serious actor to make the transition from acclaimed thespian to crinkled but skilled action man? My money is on Leo. He’s never been particularly ripped, which ticks off the vulnerability box. He got his Oscar and did his shitty production penance on The Revenant, according him with the necessary gravitas, while taking away the need to prove himself—actually I suspect he wants another statuette; that would explain his collaboration with Scorsese in the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon.

But if he does get that second Oscar, and audiences no longer buy him as a leading man, don’t be surprised if a 58-year-old Leo shows up in a movie where someone has strangled his cat and he must rely on his own unique set of skills to right a wrong. I can’t wait.

5 Best dadsploitation films

Taken I 20th Century Studios

Taken, 2009

The film that launched a genre. Neeson, then 56, plays a dad who’ll do anything to get his daughter back from a gang of Eastern European goons who’ve kidnapped her.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum I Liongate

John Wick 1-4

You can really take your pick of the Wick series. This first instalment’s simple premise made for satisfying viewing as Reeves picked off mobsters like characters in a video game. No one is better at taking out trash while dressed in a tailor-made suit.

The Equalizer I Liongate

The Equalizer, 2014

A 59-year-old Washington plays a haunted figure trying to lead a quiet life until some violent Russian gangsters show up, cue stylised mayhem. The final scene in a hardware store hopefully won’t have you fantasising about weaponsing drills and nail-guns on your next trip to Bunnings.

Criminal I Liongate

Criminal, 2016

Kevin Costner tries his hand at dadsploitation in this underrated film about an unpredictable death-row inmate, who has the memories of a CIA agent inserted into his mind. 

Nobody I Universal

Nobody, 2021

Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk initially chooses to pacify home invaders but then feels himself diminished in the eyes of his family. The realisation that the thieves stole his daughter’s kitty-cat bracelet sees him unleash a long festering desire for justice. This could have been called ‘Dadsploitation: The Movie’.


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