Talking Movies

September 26, 2018

From the Archives: Taken

Ten years ago today Taken was released in Ireland.

Liam Neeson admitted that he only took this part because at 56 he didn’t expect to be offered an action role again, from such inauspicious beginnings comes an unexpected joy as Neeson has the time of his life in Taken as effectively he gets to play Jack Bauer at age 56.

His operative secret agent (or “preventer” as he describes himself, think CTU…) has retired to spend more time with his estranged daughter. She is living with her aggravatingly wealthy stepfather Xander Berkeley (yes, that’s right Jack Bauer’s boss George Mason in 24) and Neeson’s bitter ex-wife Famke Janssen, a thankless role which is becoming so prevalent that someone really needs to have a character riposte “Well, if you’re ex is that much of a loser, it doesn’t say much about you that you married them, does it?” to get rid of it. LOST’s Maggie Grace plays Jack’s daughter Kim. Yes that’s right, French writer/producer Luc Besson has brilliantly pre-empted the planned 24 movie to the extent of having a permanently in peril daughter Kim. Kim travels to Paris with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) and, Kims being Kims, they get kidnapped by a gang trafficking in sex slaves. It’s worth sighing at this point that both actresses are far too old for their roles and ‘act young’ by jumping around a lot and screaming, which is not much of a stretch for Grace it must be admitted but is quite disappointing from Cassidy given her very cool role as a taciturn demon on Supernatural.

Neeson, as you might have seen from the absurd trailer, talks Kim through her kidnap and threatens the kidnappers before they hang up on him. He jets over, courtesy of the private plane belonging to Berkeley’s wealthy businessman, and gets medieval on the kidnappers. This isn’t “ooh look at our fancy fight choreography” fighting, this is down and dirty “how many punches, jabs and kicks do I really need to give in order to cripple this person?” fighting and bone-crunchingly realistic it looks too. This is the adrenaline rush that 24 provided before it got ridiculous. Neeson is superbly cast for this, his 6, 4” frame dominating any room he walks into, while his boxing past makes his fight scenes more plausible than is usual in a Besson produced action flick. Neeson finds the gang holding his daughter through a mix of dogged detective work, old contacts (including a mentor who features in a scene outrageously lifted directly by Besson from Day 5 of 24), old fashioned brutality and yes, you guessed it, one very nasty torture scene involving a lecture by Neeson on the joys of a constant supply of electricity when trying to beat confessions out of bad guys. Besson sure knows his 24… By the end of this film you feel sure that Neeson has killed or maimed half the Parisian underworld and, quelle surprise, the big bad turns out to be an evil Arab.

If one wanted to gripe about all this one could say that Pierre Morel’s film endorses the sort of pop-fascism espoused by 24 but analysing the politics of this nonsense would really be pushing it. This is not high art. What it is is gripping, plausible, brutal and ultimately awesome fun. Highly recommended.

4/5

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January 7, 2015

Taken 3

Liam Neeson returns for a final instalment of Besson nonsense; outrunning cop Forest Whitaker to escape a bogus murder rap by finding the real perpetrator.

tak3n-gallery2-gallery-imageTaken 3 begins with Eurotrash criminals Oleg (Sam Spruell) and Maxim (Andrew Howard) delivering a chilling message to a business partner who owes them money. Meanwhile Bryan Mills (Neeson) is once again earnestly buying an inappropriate birthday present for daughter Kim (Maggie Grace); a giant panda. Ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) confides in Bryan that her marriage to millionaire Stuart (Dougray Scott) is nearly at an end, despite much couples therapy, and a desperate Stuart then visits Bryan to beg him to not see Lenore anymore to give him a chance at salvaging the marriage. Bryan honourably agrees, but has already given Lenore his keys in case she wants some me time while he joins Sam (Leland Orser) on an out of town job. Det. Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) finds the key to be damning evidence when he starts investigating Lenore’s murder…

It’s over 6 years since I gave Taken a 4/5 review, enthused by its brutal fun riff on 24. Taken 3 is a very different kettle of fish, afflicted by many of the problems of Taken 2. The PG-13 neutering hurts immensely. Lenore’s neck wound looks barely painful let alone fatal, a man blows his head off with no blood splatter, and a shirtless man is shot in the abdomen twice; with no blood… Olivier Megaton has handled PG-13 action entertainingly in Colombiana and Transporter 3, but the absurdity of toning down Pierre Morel’s original R vision of this franchise seems to unnerve him; even the harder cut of Taken 2 saw action director Megaton fail as a director of action. Time and again Megaton films a set-up well, but then bungles the pay-off in a flail of incomprehensible editing.

Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen’s script is very awkward. The panda shows Bryan having learnt nothing since the first film’s first scene, Kim deflecting her surprise pregnancy into a conversation about a puppy is excruciatingly ham-fisted, and the first act’s lengthy inanity makes you long for Taken’s efficiency. Whitaker, despite being lumbered with a chess knight, elastic band, and bagels as props masquerading as character traits, is on good form. Scott, however, gives the worst villain performance in a Besson production since Joseph Gilgun’s unbearable turn in Lockout. Indeed an early tearful scene of desperation rivals Colin Farrell’s essaying of guilt in Cassandra’s Dream for the hammiest screen acting I’ve ever seen. Scott takes over the role of Stuart from 24 and Nikita mischief-maker Xander Berkeley, and it is impossible not to daydream about what Berkeley would have done.

‘It Ends Here’ is a tagline that sounds exhausted, and the franchise, despite an awful villain and disappointing action, falls over the line with its dignity just about intact.

2.5/5

November 16, 2011

Justice

Nicolas Cage gets involved in vigilantism masterminded by an increasingly sinister Guy Pearce but director Roger Donaldson doesn’t tighten the Hitchcockian screws.

Nicolas Cage plays ye typically inspirational English teacher at ye typically deprived inner city high school in New Orleans. He’s married to January Jones’ cellist and plays chess with his principal and good friend Harold Perrineau. And then a rapist brutally attacks Jones, and at the hospital a shaven-headed Guy Pearce approaches Cage with an offer of true justice – in return for owing a small favour at an unspecified date in the future to Pearce’s shadowy organisation. Cage of course soon discovers such favours include not just surveillance or logistics but a murder in return, and, as the net tightens, finds himself running from the police over a murder he didn’t commit, estranged from his wife who’s convinced he’s keeping something from her, and subject to wonderfully justified paranoia as Pearce’s organisation seems to pervade every strata of New Orleans.

Pearce’s introduction recalls Steed offering a hospital surgeon help in avenging his wife’s murder in The Avengers pilot, and Mr Chapel in Vengeance Unlimited offering victims a chance to get even at the cost of a million dollars or a favour, while there’s also a touch of the Twilight Zone in that the person you just killed may not actually have been guilty of anything – but now you sure are. Cage reins in his craziness for the most part but effectively channels his eccentricities into portraying the increasing nerviness of a peaceful man forced into violent confrontation after violent confrontation. This time the bad lieutenant is the always great Xander Berkeley who may be utterly corrupt or perversely honourable somehow. Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter is criminally underused as Jones’ best friend, but Harold Perrineau fares better in another studiedly ambiguous turn.

Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, 13 Days) is a good director experienced in paranoia, but raw material that Hitchcock would have relished exploiting for suspense and black comedy is perfunctorily rushed through. The escalation of Pearce’s machinations invokes Strangers on a Train’s trading of murders to elude detection, and the fact that no one can be trusted, that whistle-blowing journalists, trustworthy cops, anyone at all could suddenly mutter the Edmund Burke derived shibboleth “The hungry rabbit jumps” and reveal themselves to be part of the organisation is prime Hitch. The best wasted set-up is Cage breaking into a newspaper office, and then having to walk through the distribution bay where his face is on every front page… Donaldson instead prioritises shoot-outs, chases and unlikely action-man heroics.

This is solidly entertaining, but feels far longer than its running time. The great high concept so obviously buried in here but failed by the execution honestly just frustrates me too much to give it the 3 stars it probably deserves for about scraping being good.

2/5

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