The autumn of Liam Neeson's career has been ablaze with gunfire and money: The "Taken" franchise, which erupted in 2008, has made about $400 million; the thrillers "Non-Stop" (2014) and "Unknown" (2011) made tidy sums, too. "A Walk Among the Tombstones" (2014) was less successful at the box office, but its malice-and-mayhem story line certainly the advanced the Neeson-as-action-star brand.

But why Liam Neeson? And why now? Maybe it's because after decades of grunting, monotonal action stars, Neeson can actually articulate emotion.

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"He's a really good actor. A really, really, really good actor," said Jaume Collet-Serra, who may not be impartial, exactly -- he directed Neeson in "Unknown," "Non-Stop" and his latest thriller, "Run All Night," which opens Friday. But he makes a good point: "Liam really likes these kinds of movies. He likes shooting them, and he likes watching them. Audiences really identify with him in many different ways, and that comes from being a likable guy. Even in this character he's really likable."

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"This character" is the weary alcoholic hit man Jimmy Connelly, longtime enforcer for a New York-Irish mob run by his childhood pal, Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Connelly has murdered upward of 17 people over the years and it's a testament to Neeson's charisma that he isn't a purely repellent character. That and a redemptive plotline: When Jimmy's son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), witnesses a couple of murders committed by Shawn's son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook), Jimmy has to side with his estranged offspring over his longtime employer. The fireworks begin.

Because the story rolls out over one night in New York, "we shot 10 weeks of nights," Collet-Serra said. "It was tough on everybody, but that's what you need to do. Hopefully, we shoot New York in a way that hasn't been done before, and create a new identity for the movie. That's what we were going for. We shot in Queens, Brooklyn, the story takes us all over the city."

Ultimately, however, the draw is going to be Collet-Serra's star. "If audiences go to a Liam Neeson movie, they know it's going to be quality, the acting is going to be high quality and they're going to like him as a character," the director said. "That's why he's a movie star."