Should Liam Neeson be playing Jack Reacher?

When I was at the annual international celebration of crime writing in Cleveland earlier this month — the Bouchercon — everyone seemed to be buzzing about the upcoming Tom Cruise picture based on one of Lee Child’s terrific novels about the adventures of ex-military cop Jack Reacher.

Few writers or fans that I talked with were happy about Cruise playing the title role in “Jack Reacher,” which is based on “One Shot,” an early novel in the series.

Child describes a big man in his books — well over 6 feet tall — and Cruise is a famously diminutive movie star.

At one of the Bouchercon panels the results of a poll asking the question, “Who should play Jack Reacher?” were released and the actor who came in first place was Liam Neeson. (Cruise was in the number four position in the poll, followed by “Anyone but Tom Cruise.”)

Neeson, who turned 60 last June, is about 20 years too old to be the Reacher of the novels, but the poll reflects the actor’s surprising emergence as a major action star over the past few years.

Starting with “Taken” in 2008 and continuing with “The Grey” last year and the current “Taken 2” Neeson has demonstrated considerable conviction in playing action roles, along with huge audience appeal (“Taken 2” brought in more than $100 million in its first two weeks in theaters).

The movie industry is still rather shocked by Neeson’s late-career success in the action genre — he spent more than 20 years working in movies primarily as a character actor before his fortunes changed with “Taken” — but it seems obvious that audiences are responding to the humanity and intelligence he has brought to stories that could have been empty exercises in style without him.

With Neeson in these roles, there is a real human being in jeopardy, so the stakes are much higher than they would be with Sylvester Stallone or even Bruce Willis playing the parts. Those two guys are movie stars from head to toe — Neeson seems like someone you might actually bump into on the street or sit next to on an airplane (in tourist class).

“Taken 2” is little more than an extended chase — in exotic Istanbul — but Neeson’s concern for his endangered ex-wife and daughter holds everything together. And while he is physically still more than up to the rigors of the running and fighting these movies demand, the character’s intelligence is what saves the day again and again.

I am withholding any judgement on Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher until the movie opens at Christmas — he’s a wonderful actor who was terrific in last year’s “Mission Impossible” sequel — but I can see why those mystery fans were so enthusiastic about Liam Neeson.

Joe Meyers