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Liam Neeson vs Denzel Washington: who is the bigger action star?

 Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli, Liam Neeson in Taken
Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli, Liam Neeson in Taken

Typically when you think of an action movie star, it's a muscle-bound actor in the 20-40 range or Tom Cruise pulling off mouth-dropping stunts. However, here in the late summer of 2023, the two biggest action stars on screen are none other than Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington, two of Hollywood's most venerated actors who have both surpassed the usual age of retirement (no dig, I'd kill to look as good as either of them when I'm hitting my 70s).

Liam Neeson's latest movie is Retribution, an action/thriller that released in the US on August 25. Denzel Washington, meanwhile, is set to star in The Equalizer 3, premiering everywhere on September 1. This isn't anything new, Neeson and Washington have both frequently starred in action movies over their careers.

All of this got us thinking, who would win in a fight? Not an actual fist fight, but in the fight using the sharpest weapon of all — statistics. Using critical reception and box office receipt, we searched to answer whether Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington is a bigger action star.

Now, we can't just compile the average of all their reviews and average box office of their action movies, as by our count Neeson has appeared in more action movies, which could give him an unfair advantage. So, instead, we'll be curating 10 movies from their action resumes based on a few key criteria.

First, Neeson or Washington must be the main or one of the leading stars of the movie (so Neeson's supporting role in Battleship or Clash of the Titans movies are out), the movie must have been released after 2000 (no Star Wars for Neeson or Crimson Tide for Washington), but we're not counting any movies released between 2020-2023, as their box office was impacted by the pandemic. Neeson still had a few more, so we then just randomly selected a couple from some of his less high-profile titles.

We then gave each actor a score based on their movies' Rotten Tomatoes and box office performances. For Rotten Tomatoes, a movie with a score of 1-10% would get 1 point. Each next tier of 10% would get one more point, so a moving scoring between 91-100% would receive 10 points. The same basic principle applied for box office, just with each tier covering a $50 million range; so $0 to $50 million got 1 point and $450 million to $500 million got 10 points.

So, let's break down Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington's action movies by the numbers.

Rotten Tomatoes scores

Liam Neeson action movies Rotten Tomatoes scores

Liam Neeson in The Grey
Liam Neeson in The Grey
  • Taken — 59%

  • The A-Team — 49%

  • Unknown — 55%

  • The Grey — 79%

  • Taken 2 — 22%

  • Non-Stop — 62%

  • Taken 3 — 13%

  • Run All Night — 59%

  • The Commuter — 55%

  • Cold Pursuit — 68%

Denzel Washington action movies Rotten Tomatoes scores

Denzel Washington in Unstoppable
Denzel Washington in Unstoppable
  • Man on Fire — 39%

  • Deja Vu — 56%

  • The Taking of Pelham 123 — 51%

  • The Book of Eli — 41%

  • Unstoppable — 87%

  • Safe House — 53%

  • 2 Guns — 64%

  • The Equalizer — 60%

  • The Magnificent Seven — 64%

  • The Equalizer 2 — 52%

Analysis

I was honestly shocked the original Taken didn't score better on Rotten Tomatoes. It has become so ingrained in the culture and is a signature Neeson movie that I was sure it would at least be considered "Fresh."

But looking at both, their action movies aren't critical darlings. Neeson's movies averaged a Rotten Tomatoes score of 52.1%, with only three being rated as "Fresh." Washington's average wasn't all that better, 57.3%, and he only had one more movie earn a "Fresh" designation, but he also scored the best reviewed action movie between the two, with 2010's Unstoppable, his last collaboration with the late Tony Scott.

Early edge goes to Washington.

Box Office

Liam Neeson action movies box office

Liam Neeson in Non-Stop
Liam Neeson in Non-Stop
  • Taken — $226.8 million

  • The A-Team — $177.2 million

  • Unknown — $135.7 million

  • The Grey — $79.7 million

  • Taken 2 — $376.1 million

  • Non-Stop — $222.8 million

  • Taken 3 — $326.4 million

  • Run All Night — $71.5 million

  • The Commuter — $119.9 million

  • Cold Pursuit — $76.4 million

Denzel Washington action movies box office

Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds in Safe House
Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds in Safe House
  • Man on Fire — $130.8 million

  • Deja Vu — $180.5 million

  • The Taking of Pelham 123 — $150.1 million

  • The Book of Eli — $157.1 million

  • Unstoppable — $167.8 million

  • Safe House — $208 million

  • 2 Guns — $131.9 million

  • The Equalizer — $192.3 million

  • The Magnificent Seven — $162.3 million

  • The Equalizer 2 — $190.4 million

Analysis

Neeson strikes back at the box office. Many may recall that between the late 2000s and early 2010s, Neeson was legitimately one of the biggest action stars in the world thanks to the Taken franchise. The three Taken movies pulled in almost $1 billion at the global box office just by themselves. Neeson then had another $200 million hit with Non-Stop. However, there were a few bumps along the way with The Grey, Run All Night and Cold Pursuit, none of which crossed $100 million.

Where Neeson had some major highs and a couple of less-than-stellar showings, Washington's action resume has been the picture of consistency at the box office. Every single one of the movies that we looked at earned more than $100 million, with eight of them earning at least $150 million. Washington just didn't have the global sensation like Taken; his only movie to cross the $200 million mark was Safe House, which had a bit of extra star power with Ryan Reynolds.

However, looking at the average and points, Neeson's $300 million hits give him the edge in the box office. But is it enough to win it outright?

Winner

Who is the bigger action star: Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington?

Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3
Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3

After calculating the points from Rotten Tomatoes scores and box office performances, the final results were as close as they could be, with only one point separating the two stars. But, in the end, Denzel Washington edged Liam Neeson, 98 to 97. The general consistency of Washington's movies is what won him the day.

Ironically, the movies that earned Neeson his advantage at the box office, the Taken sequels, were also what probably did him in as they scored so low with critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

It was an interesting experiment to see how the numbers for the two stars turned out. Of course, many may still believe that Neeson is the bigger action star, as it is what he has become more associated with in his career in the last 20 years, while Washington is more known for his Oscar-contending dramas. Though, to be fair to each, Washington has been dabbling in the action genre since the beginning of his career and Neeson has been balancing his action roles with some acclaimed movies in recent years.

The battle of superiority for Neeson or Washington action movies can still be a fun debate, but looking at these numbers, Denzel Washington comes out on top.