• Neeson tells his daughter (Kim Mills) how much he cares in Taken 3.

Near the start of Taken 3, Liam Neeson’s perpetually unlucky ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills tries to show his college-aged daughter how “unpredictable” her old man can be by showing up at her apartment a few days before her birthday to present her with her gift. It is a giant stuffed panda. Even the filmmakers acknowledge how stupid this is—in fact, they can’t seem to acknowledge it enough, milking this awkward display of affection for maybe a half-dozen unfunny one-liners. It’s the filmic equivalent of a band vamping on the same several bars of a song before the front man appears onstage—the movie has to do something before Neeson gets into trouble and starts kicking ass. And, hey, who doesn’t like pandas?

If the early passages of Taken 3 carry any dramatic weight, it’s due to Neeson’s iconic presence. Practically anything he does in a darkly lit genre movie like this helps to perpetuate the screen myth he’s been building since the first Taken. It’s the myth of an older man with a dark past that he’d just as soon forget, forced by circumstances to reassert his violent nature and cunning intellect and accomplishing a good deal when he does.

Neeson’s created variations on the myth. In his collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown and Non-Stop) his character isn’t as good a fighter, and in Joe Carnahan’s The Grey his character doesn’t accomplish all that much in the end. In Carnahan’s The A-Team and Peter Berg’s Battleship, ensemble pieces rather than star vehicles, Neeson plays a gruff but ultimately sympathetic father figure to younger ass-kickers with less life experience. But in all these movies, the actor conveys a certain world-weariness and a sense that he should know better than to enter into dire situations.

There’s a poignant underside to the myth. We always find the Neeson character in the second act of his life—after his adventures in the CIA, after his divorce, after he was kicked off the police force—attempting to start afresh or at least make the best of what he has. Even before the action movie mechanics get into gear, he seems vulnerable, weighted down by regrets. The actor’s body language communicates this instantly—his large frame seems like one more burden, his sunken expression practically reflexive. The stuffed-panda bit in Taken 3, however belabored, reminds us of the Neeson character’s difficulty maintaining a normal, crisis-free life.

At times the Neeson character suggests a pulp-fiction version of the enervated 60-something men in Tsai Ming-liang’s The River, Michael Mann’s The Insider, or Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner—old-fashioned, well-meaning patriarchs fighting the suspicion they’ve outgrown their use. Perhaps the Neeson character feels a bit of relief when some life-or-death conflict arises, as it allows him to be in his element again. If so, the Neeson myth also serves as a wish-fulfillment fantasy. “There’s a comfort-food quality to watching Neeson desperately loping across the screen yet again,” Nick Pinkerton recently wrote for Film Comment‘s website, “though all the razzle-dazzle cutting in the world can’t imbue him with the appearance of gazelle-like speed.”

I doubt that even the actor’s die-hard fans believe otherwise. That Neeson is past his prime and a little out of shape only adds to the myth—here are still more reasons for the Neeson character not to enter into danger. But enter he does, motivated by a sense of duty he’s managed to keep sharp while the rest of him deteriorated. Just like Neeson the actor exhibits flashes of brilliance even in generic crap like Taken 3, so too does the Neeson character exhibit unflagging moral responsibility despite his weakened sense of self. I think this is crucial to the actor’s belated success as an action star. One can easily relate to the Neeson character in his moments of weakness, which makes his feats of strength feel that much more satisfying.