Five years ago, at age 53, Liam Neeson had a rep as a soulful prestige-level actor (Schinder’s List, Husbands and Wives, Kinsey, Gun Shy) with a soothing Irish brogue. Then he started to take macho gravitas paycheck roles (Batman Begins, voicing the Narnia lion, Kingdom of Heaven). And then Taken — the biggest hit of his career — happened in ’08, and now he’s became a total paycheck popcorn-movie guy.

It’s gotten to the point, I’m afraid, that when I see Neeson’s face on a poster or in a trailer, I immediately say “okay, what’s this piece of shit?” Next to Neeson Harrison Ford looks like Jim Broadbent.

Chloe was painful. After.Life was agony. Clash of the Titans was 3D agony. The A-Team was mute nostril agony. And now Unknown, obviously a forgettable programmer. No one’s seen Paul Haggis‘s The Next Three Days, in which Neeson plays the desperado who helps Russell Crowe bust Elizabeth Banks out of jail, but the word from a recent exhibitor convention is that it’s somewhere between good, not bad and okay.

I’ll allow that ’09’s Five Minutes of Heaven wasn’t exploitive and tried to do it right, but it still wasn’t very good. I certainly don’t mean to criticize Neeson for wanting to provide for his kids, particularly in the wake of the death of his wife, Natasha Richardson, in a freak skiing accident last year. But I miss the Liam Neeson whose choice of roles didn’t make me wince or sigh with exasperation. I miss the guy from the early to mid ’90s.

Neeson actually had an earlier run of shit paycheck roles and macho bellowers in the late ’90s and early 21st Century when he made The Phantom Menace, The Haunting, Gangs of New York and Love Actually. Okay, there was also the eminently decent K:19 and the aforementioned Gun Shy — no shame in either of those.

Update: A tipster claims that Neeson’s role in The Next Three Days is miniscule. “He has a one-scene cameo…what you see in the trailer is pretty much his entire role.”