Neeson vs. Denzel


Liam Neeson in Taken, or Denzel in Man on Fire. Who ya got?

Credit, YouTube
Credit, YouTube

Let’s play a new, uninteresting, and entirely short-lived game: Name That Movie Character. The rules are simple. I describe a character to you and you then have 10 seconds to name him/her. Here’s today’s character description: (a) In a movie that came out within the last 10 years, (b) Ambiguous background involving covert government service, (c) Trying to shift to a more quiet life, (d) Spurred into action by the kidnapping of a young girl he loves, and (e) Death incarnate to anyone who gets in his way. Your 10 seconds start…NOW. I’ll wait.

When I posed this question to 10 of my friends, four of them immediately answered Liam Neeson from Taken, three of them thought about it for a few seconds and then said Liam, and the other three told me to leave them alone. Something about them having work to do. Whatever.

What’s interesting is that none of them, not one, answered Denzel Washington from Man On Fire, even though the above description fits him perfectly, too. That could simply be a recency effect (Man On Fire came out in 2004, Taken in 2008), but in general Taken got a lot more attention. It also made a lot more money ($145 million domestically for Taken compared to only $78 million domestically for Man On Fire…thank you IMDB), which is interesting seeing as they’re essentially the same movie: Background to set up the relationship between the hero and the girl, kidnapping, hero says a cool line, death, more death, torture, even more death, and finally a happy ending. In fact, the only real differences between the two are the relationships between the hero and the girl, Man On Fire is almost a full hour longer than Taken (it needed a lot more time to establish said hero-girl relationship, seeing as the father-daughter thing in Taken is a lot more intuitive), and (I’d say “spoiler alert”…but the movie came out nine years ago) that Denzel dies at the end of Man On Fire.

All this got me wondering which character I’d less rather have after me. Not because I’m considering taking up kidnapping as a hobby, mind you, but just because the two are so similar. Eerily similar at times. For example, take the first comparison category:

1.) Three-pronged badass line right before all hell breaks loose – Most people (read: the four people who have kept reading this far) are familiar with Liam’s three-pronged badass line right before all hell breaks loose:

Liam: I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.

Marko: Good luck.

This is an excellent line and a fantastic scene. Liam sitting there listening to his daughter being kidnapped is awesome because you can actually see him planning what he’s going to do to the kidnappers when he finds them. As the scene progresses, you can see him mentally shift from simply killing them to making them suffer horribly before killing them. It’s pretty great. So, Liam has a strong submission, but Denzel doesn’t just concede this category:

Denzel: I’m gonna kill ‘em. Anyone that was involved, anyone who profited from it, anyone who opens their eyes at me.

Girl’s mother: You kill ‘em all (which has to be one of the top three most badass lines ever spoken by a woman holding a teddy bear).

This is also a fantastic scene. Not just because the dialog acts as a starting gun for the mayhem, but also because it’s punctuated at the end with Nine Inch Nails’ “The Mark Has Been Made.” All things considered, I’m calling this category a toss-up. You could even switch to an alternate version of the category called “Most badass line spoken over the phone to the kidnapper” and I’d still call it a toss-up. Liam’s line for the alternate version would be the same one mentioned above, while Denzel would get, “I don’t want your money, Daniel. I want you. I’m gonna take your family apart piece by piece, you understand me? Piece by piece.”

2.) Main friend/sidekick – Both Liam and Denzel have one old covert ops buddy who helps them start identifying targets to torture and/or kill. For Liam, this is Sam (Leland Orser), who seems to work in private security and have a lot of resources at his disposal. For Denzel, this is Rayburn (Christopher Walken), who’s resources seem limited to helping Denzel buy military grade weapons. Both sidekicks help their heroes start their hunts…then promptly disappear. I’m giving Denzel the advantage here because Rayburn shows back up for a short, but fantastic (and completely unexplained) scene in which he tells a police commander, “He’ll [Denzel] deliver more justice in a weekend than 10 years of your courts and tribunals.” Extra points here for the use of “tribunals” because, really, who doesn’t love a good tribunal?

3.) Number of kidnapped girls saved during the movie – Interestingly, this is a tie at two. Both Liam and Denzel just happen to save a random girl during their hunt for the kidnappers. Like I said, eerily similar.

4.) Wanton destruction of other people’s property – This may actually be the only clear-cut category, with Denzel winning it hands down. Liam steals a few cars, does some damage at a construction site, and messes up some piping in the home of the sex slave coordinator, but that’s about it. Denzel destroys several cars, but wins for blowing up the building in which the kidnapped girls were held. It should be noted, however, that this was a massively suspect move on Denzel’s part. I mean, not only is it unclear why he decided to start the fire and blow the place all to hell, but the main floor of the building was a rave…that was packed at the time he set the fire. In the movie, he managed to get everyone out before the building blew. In real life, this ends with a tragedy and an international manhunt.

5.) Most absolutely cold-blooded moment – Both of our heroes do so many cold-blooded things in these two movies, this category had to be changed from an overall ranking of cold-bloodedness (which is almost impossible to score) to the single most cold-blooded moment. And even with this change, there’s still no slam-dunk winner. Thankfully, though, one moment stands out enough above all the others to take it home. Here are Liam’s two main contenders:

(a) Hooking Marko into a homemade electric chair, questioning him, and then walking away with the power left on (“I believe you, but that won’t save you”), and

(b) Shooting his old friend’s wife in the arm to get some information.

Denzel has three nominees:

(a) Taping a bad cop’s hands to a steering wheel and cutting off several of his body parts (couple fingers and an ear) before shooting him in the head,

(b) Sticking a homemade bomb up the main bad cop’s ass and then walking away right before he explodes (“I wish…you had…more time” again punctuated by “The Mark Has Been Made”…so good), and

(c) Telling the kidnapper that his brother has something to say to him, putting the phone to the brother’s face, and then shooting off the brother’s fingers with a shotgun.

Now, while Denzel has a few more total cold-blooded moments (bearing in mind Man On Fire is an hour longer), the single most cold-blooded moment goes to Liam for shooting his old friend’s wife in the arm, and here’s why: All of the other moments involve torturing/killing bad guys, while the old friend’s wife was arguably THE NICEST CHARACTER IN THE WHOLE FILM. Seriously, have a look. Every other character has something negative about them (e.g., shady background, lies to someone else, just isn’t nice), but not the friend’s wife. This is a woman who was sitting down to eat with Liam and was genuinely excited by the prospect of him moving to Paris about 30 seconds before he put a bullet in her. Pretty sure that has to take the cold-blooded prize.

6.) Weapons used during his rampage – Every possible way to score this category is entirely defensible. Denzel uses a much broader range of weapons (e.g., rocket launcher, C4 with a micro detonator, grenades), so you could convince me to give it to him because he could come at you in many different ways. Liam, though, pretty much exclusively uses his hands and a handgun, which in its own way is kind of terrifying. I mean, he does a tremendous amount of damage with just his hands and a glock, so I’m calling this a tie.

7.) Motivation for the rampage – This final category seems like it should be a toss-up, but I don’t think it is. Liam makes it very clear in his one-sided phone chat with Marko that all he wants is his daughter back safe. So, I feel like at any point the kidnappers could’ve left Liam’s daughter somewhere for him to find…and he would’ve gone home. His goal was to save his daughter. Denzel didn’t have that luxury. By the time he woke up from his coma, everyone thought the girl in his movie was dead, so he was out for revenge pure and simple. Plus, he was convinced his wounds from the kidnapping were going to kill him anyway, so he legitimately thought he had nothing to lose. Think Denzel wins this one by a fraction.

Final score: Liam 1, Denzel 3 (Toss-ups: 3). Taken made more money (and spawned a horrific sequel that makes so little sense I still can’t believe Nick Cage wasn’t somehow involved), but I think Denzel in Man On Fire is the bigger badass. Sorry, Liam. Had you driven one of those stolen cars into the Eifel Tower, we might be having a very different conversation right now.

Author: Jeffery Simpson Day

Has no grade point average. All courses, incomplete. Whereabouts unknown.