Liam Neeson tapped his working mum's layoff to stoke a righteous anger in 'Honest Thief'

©The Philadelphia Inquirer

Actor Liam Neeson attends 'Venganza Bajo Cero' photocall at the Villamagna Hotel on July 16, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. - Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images North America/TNS

The list of revenge targets in “Honest Thief” is long — this is a Liam Neeson action movie after all — but it all starts with banks.

Neeson plays a man who robs a bank because of the way its executives mistreated his father, a story element the actor responded to on a deeply personal level.

For Neeson, raised in Ballymena in Northern Ireland, it reminded him of the way his mother, Kitty, was laid off just short of qualifying for the modest pension she’d been working toward, one of the reasons she toiled in the same low-wage job for three decades.

“My mom, who just passed away a couple of months ago, she worked as a dinner lady in a girls’ school in my hometown for 33, 34 years. Working long hours, walking to school, and walking back. Didn’t have a car, never learned to drive,” said Neeson, speaking from a sofa in his upstate New York home via Zoom.

“I believe her take-home pay — she showed it to me once — the check was something like $150 for the month,” he said. “And I remember it made me really angry. Really angry. It also made me love my mother even more, what she did for 34 bloody years, working for a pittance.”

Of course her retirement prospects improved when son Liam, now 68, graduated from operating a forklift at the local Guinness plant to fame and fortune on stage and screen. (“I took care of her,” he is quick to say.) But he still recalls that teeth-gritting anger of watching her lose her retirement security, and tapped into it for “Honest Thief,” opening in theaters Friday.

He plays Tom, a retired Navy demolitions expert who uses, yes, a particular set of skills developed over a very long career, to break into bank vaults.

When he falls in love with the divorced Annie (Kate Walsh), he decides he needs to come clean and go straight, so he tries to turn himself in to the FBI, only to run afoul of two dangerously crooked agents.

Obviously, they haven’t seen “Taken,” since they seem unaware of what happens when you cross one of Neeson’s characters in an action movie, and especially when you mess with somebody he loves.

“I’m going to set things right. My way,” says Tom, just before the inevitable onslaught of fists, guns, and bombs.

It’s a line Neeson fans have come to expect and to relish, augmented this time by a female character who also likes to dish it out, and finds her boyfriend’s latent talents more intriguing than alarming.

“Blowing stuff up,” Annie says, upon learning of Tom’s secret life. “That’s pretty cool.”

Tom is another version of the chivalrous vigilante character that’s become a staple for Neeson, who made three “Taken”s and several “Taken” variations — including “Taken” on a train (“The Commuter”) and “Taken” on a plane (“Non-Stop”).

But it was all new to costar Walsh, best known for her Screen Actors Guild-award-winning TV work in “Grey’s Anatomy” and appearances on lauded shows like “Fargo” and “13 Reasons Why,” and memorable light comedy supporting roles in “Girls Trip” and other films.

“I’ve been fortunate to work for a good long while, but I have to say I really liked the idea of getting to do a big fight scene. I’ve never done one of those. That’ll be fun!”

For Walsh, it represented the kind of risk that keeps acting interesting, although she uses the word “risk” advisedly.

“Acting is really about jumping off cliffs all the time. But not really. We have very cushy parachutes,” she said.

For late-blooming action hero Neeson, “Taken” and its descendants have functioned as a kind of golden parachute, the kind his mother never got.

After a long and double-Oscar-nominated career (“Schindler’s List,” “Kinsey”) of doing distinguished and challenging cinema — he was Hollywood’s go-to guy for serious biography like Michael Collins — his career took a turn.

He hadn’t punched anyone since he gave up boxing as a teen, but at age 60, he suddenly became the world’s top choice for pummeling onscreen bad guys.

It wasn’t planned, he had no idea it was coming, and still doesn’t know quite what to make of it.

“I remember reading (the ‘Taken’ script) and thinking, this is going straight to video. But it’s three months in Paris, so what the hell. I just thought this will be a cool little European thriller. I was stunned at the success.”

Had he any inkling that those now-famous words — “I’m a man with a very particular set of skills” — would grab the world by its pop-culture collar and never let go?

“Nothing against the writer or director, but no.”

Walsh said that it’s hard for actors to know what the finished product will look like when a movie or TV show is still in the script phase.

“The work is the work. I mean you never really just phone it in,” said Walsh, who laughed when Neeson said he liked the idea of three months in France. She’s currently enjoying spring in western Australia, where she’s doing a play and this three-way interview for “Honest Thief,” thanks to the magic of Zoom.

“There’s no way of knowing what’s really going to happen. You can’t even predict. You can have the best Oscar-winning everybody on board and it can simply not work out. But, conversely, you can have the opposite experience. Something will become a hit and you’re like, ‘Where’d that come from?’ “

“Honest Thief” has a pedigree. There’s Neeson with his two Academy Award nominations, Walsh with a SAG award, and Grammy winner Anthony Ramos (Hamilton) playing one of the FBI agents. Writer-director Mark Williams cut his teeth on the highly touted “Ozark” series, which he co-created.

“Honest Thief” has some of that “Ozark” darkness, but at its center is a love story, with two “people of a certain age,” as Walsh puts it, getting a chance to start over, once they clean up various levels of corruption in a regional office of the FBI.

“I mean, it’s easy to be cynical about it. Is this guy really going to change his life for her? But love is not rational or cerebral. It transcends that, and hopefully we were able to put that across on screen. The redemptive power of love.”

Complemented by the power of strategically placed explosives.

———

©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer