My notes on the Liam Neeson action franchise
Producer Luc Besson in his Taxi/Transporter mode and Karate Kid screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen here provide the sort of generic action storyline which could easily have wound up with Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme in the lead, but Taken is fortunate enough to have Liam Neeson instead. He can handle the Jason Bourne-style action business reasonably well, but it’s his forceful personality which sells this unashamedly pulpy thriller, along with the sort of fights, chases and destruction that usually gets labeled ‘high octane’ on blurbs.
An opening reel establishes that Bryan (Neeson) has retired from a shady career with the CIA in order to be near his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who lives with his embittered ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and her wealthy second husband (Xander Berkeley) and flip-flops between gosh-wow devotion to Daddy and pettish manipulativeness. When Kim wants to go to Paris with a friend (Katie Cassidy) for the summer, Bryan – hmmnn, weirdness just kicked in, my name is Kim and my father’s name is Bryan, though my mother wasn’t called Lenore – has to give his written permission, which he is loth to provide, but does even though it turns out the girls aren’t going to spend their time in museums like they say but intend to follow U2 on tour (in real life, few teenage girls would give Ubloody2 space on their I-pods). Of course, Daddy’s misgivings prove correct when the amiable fellow (Nicolas Giraud) who offers to share their taxi from the airport to Paris turns out to be a spotter for a gang of Albanian white-slavers, who burst into the flat where the girls are staying and abduct them. Kim is on the phone to Daddy at the time, and he gets enough clues from her to give him a start when – arriving via the stepfather’s private jet – he sets about finding his girl within the 96 hours he is reckoned to have before she won’t be worth finding.
Neeson is so forceful a presence and the film so swiftly-paced that it skates over the many, many plot-holes as he deals with treacherous and corrupt French cops, fiendish Albanian slavers and – eventually – a smoothly nasty businessman (Gerard Watkins) who has sold his virgin daughter to an obese Arab for half a million dollars. The climax, in which Bryan rescues the girl from a riverboat while wiping out the Arab’s entire well-armed security force, is strangely identical with the finale of Hannibal Rising and we get a lot of familiar business (dropping to the floor behind furniture and shooting a baddie in the ankle, then getting in a killshot when he falls down) mixed in with the many, many implausibilities (from the slavers’ tendency to kidnap well-connected Americans because it’s now too expensive to fly girls from Eastern Europe to the French authorities letting the hero leave the country with no hassles after he’s gunned down about fifty people). Pierre Morel, following up his parkour-flavoured s-f debut Banlieue 13, delivers solid action, and this is a trash entertainment that at least manages to entertain.
Directed by Pierre Morel (District 13) and co-scripted by producer Luc Besson, Taken was a breakthrough hit – establishing middle-aged Liam Neeson as an action movie star who could hold up his own franchise as well as decorate other heroes’ journeys. It gave Neeson a signature speech (‘I have a very particular set of skills’) and spun some fairly obnoxious attitudes to foreigners into a thump-fest that has crept up into a lot of folks’ guilty pleasures lists. So, a sequel was needed – though Morel has been replaced by Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3), the Paris locale is ditched in favour of picturesque Istanbul and, perhaps fatally, the hard-edged tone of the first film has been deliberately blunted to secure a 12A rating (with cuts liable to be restored for a ‘full strength’ DVD release). The results are acceptable nonsense, but aren’t liable to change anyone’s life.
With some ingenuity, the script sets up a situation whereby – this time – it’s Bryan Mills (Neeson) and his estranged-but-open-to-reconciliation wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) who get ‘taken’, leaving former abduction bait daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) at liberty to run around, following silly orders (like chucking grenades out of her hotel room window) and facilitating her Dad’s rescue-and-escape stratagems. In a riff on that Austin Powers nobody-cares-about-the-family-of-a-minion gag, we open in that town in Albania where all the sex traffickers come from and evil patriarch Murad (Rade Serbedzija, who owns such roles) burying the many members of his family Bryan slaughtered out of hand in the first film, and vowing vengeance against the ex-CIA agent. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, in developments more suited to a Fockers flick, Bryan is antsy about his annoyingly sulky, pettish teenage daughter – Grace is still the weak link in this cast, but gets more bikini time in this installment – having a boyfriend and failing her driver’s test twice. So, the Millses hook up in Turkey after Bryan has done a security gig there – and Murad’s gang swoop down to abduct them with torture and revenge in mind. Kim, we’re told, will be sold to the lowest brothel in the world.
The scripting is lazier this time round – Murad’s minions spend a ridiculous amount of time sitting around, smoking, watching football, not paying attention to their resourceful captives and quite deservedly get slaughtered en masse for their uselessness. Other clichés are well in evidence – the goons who are ridiculously willing to stay behind and hold off the killing machine hero when so ordered by their boss, the master villain who sets up a horrible fate for the goodie then doesn’t stick around to watch and enjoy his torment purely so the hero can work his way free, the lack of official police interest in multiple explosions and a body count the size of a small war taking place in a capital city. Neeson enjoys such whiskery schtick as the old retracing-a-journey-made-while-blindhooded-by-remembering-the-street-sounds gambit and growls ferociously but endearingly as he goes hand to hand with a horde of anonymous stunt men. Indeed, of the baddies, only Serbedzija has anything like a personality – but Neeson brings enough to the game for this not to matter much. It’s nice seeing Janssen getting more to do, even if it is mostly being hung upside-down and abused.
Locations are good, stunts are fine, but the plot is meh and prospects of a third go-round not encouraging. Maybe Besson should do an Avengers-type team-up of Nikita, Leon, the Transporter and Bryan Mills, preferably to rescue Milla Jovovich from the Resident Evil franchise.
Since it would be stretching even the belief envelope required to enjoy the Taken series to have Bryan Mills’ trouble magnet daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) kidnapped abroad again, this threequel is forced to ring some changes by a) taking place entirely within the environs of Greater Los Angeles and b) switching to a plot modelled on The Fugitive (or even US Marshals) as craggy old veteran covert ops guy Mills (Liam Neeson) is framed for the murder of his ex-wife Lenore (series regular Famke Janssen, bowing out after a reel or two) and has to go on the run – using his ‘very particular set of skills’ – from the cops, building up something of a respect relationship with rubberband-twanging homicide detective Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), who twigs early on that his target isn’t guilty, while working out that the murder has a lot to do with Lenore’s sleazy second husband (Dougray Scott) and the Russian mob guy (Sam Spruell) he owes bigtime.
Mills’ veteran krewe (Leland Orser, Jon Gries) get a bit more to do, but are eventually sidelined – Orser even gets shot, with only a dubbed-in line suggesting he has a chance of survival, which isn’t confirmed in a coda (maybe it was a preview card suggestion) that devolves to the deadloss soap subplot strand about Kim being unexpectedly pregnant and Mills vowing to support her in her decision (frankly, it would be a huge and positive outcome if she decided to have a no-guilt abortion and he supported her – but it’ll be a cold day in hell when you see that in a Hollywood film).
By now, Neeson’s schtick as Mills is almost cosily familiar – he keeps getting out of trouble by ingenuity and violence, and here has to tone down a bit because quite a few of the folks he batters are innocent cops or security guards (none of whom get redress for the assaults after he’s cleared of the murder charge) and he only goes into kill mode when up against those doubtless full-on homicidal (and foreign) Russian villains (it seems to be open season on them since he doesn’t even have to answer charges for wiping out an apartment load of goons before offing the big boss). It’s all a bit pat – another unthinkable shakeup which might have been more fun would have been to have Mills murdered and let Janssen take over and avenge him for a change, but here female relatives or ex-relatives are just plot tokens.
Directed by Olivier Megaton, scripted by series regulars Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen – the team who also brought you Taken 2 (and Transporter 3). Neeson capitalised on the surprise hit status of Taken by making a run of late-career action pictures, with variable results – though The Grey and The Commuter have a lot going for them – but his signature franchise should probably have stuck after the first one.
Now this is more like it. I haven’t seen this yet, but judging from the trailer, it looks like it deserves more than the one star we gave it this month. Looking forward to this again – thanks, Kim!
I forgot to mention how poor Maggie Grace’s impersonation of an excitable teenage girl is – she literally jumps up and down with delight when given a horse. Any slobbering perv would be ill-advised to shell out half a million dollars for her.
Not sure about that one star thing. My guess is that Dan hasn’t seen the last twenty or thirty Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren films which, on a relative scale, are about one-tenth as good as Taken.