Saturday, 13 October 2012

Taken 2: Taken too far

The first Taken movie was a bit of a surprise, because Luc Besson bolted into one of his interchangeable thriller plots an actual actor. Putting someone like Liam Neeson into a simple-minded bullet-fest made it somehow more gripping. The flip side was that it turned Liam Neeson unexpectedly into a middle aged action star, with decided uneven results. It's not the best possible use of his talents….

As always, when something exceeds beyond expectations, the impulse to make a sequel is irresistible, so Taken had to be followed by Taken 2. And probably a Taken 3. Luc Besson doesn't ever stop; we've had four Taxi movies and three Transporter movies when one of each would have been just the right number. Liam Neeson could be seeing people and things taken off him from now till he's older than Indiana Jones at this rate.

What was Taken 2 like? Not as good as Taken. The first movie worked because it had a very simple through line; daughter done need to be rescued, and Liam stops at nothing in the chase. It's actually a pretty dark and unpleasant movie; Liam murders and tortures his way through a lot of - admittedly unpleasant - people by the time he gets to the sinister Arab man-behind-the-man who's trying to buy her. Apart from the sheer surprise of watching a subtle actor making Jack Bauer look a social worker, it's compelling because you're trying to keep up with just how far over the line Neeson's Bryan Mills is willing to go. As far as torturing a guy with electricity and then just leaving him plugged in until he dies, which is not what heroes are supposed to do. And that isn't good, as such, but it's at least thought provoking.

Taken 2 is much more conventional. When Bryan's ex wife gets kidnapped, he's ruthless and determined, but no more than Hollywood good guys usually are. Which makes the movie just like everything else; it lives and dies on the strength of the acting and whether the stunts are impressive. The most you can say for either is that it's workmanlike. The most imaginative thing in the movie is Liam Neeson triangulating his own location by getting his daughter to throw hand grenades around and timing the bangs. There's nothing in the action scenes themselves which lives up to that kind of thinking; the fights are just fights, and the long car chase in the middle was somehow samey enough that I had time to think that we were being set up for the end of the movie. In Taken, Bryan Mills brings his daughter a famous singer to give her singing lessons. In Taken 2, he's trying to bond with her by giving her driving lessons, and as soon as she has to drive the car during the car chase, I thought "Oh yeah, this movie is going to end with her passing her driving test…" Admittedly it did give one of the better lines of the movie; the daughter says she can't do the driving. "You know how to shoot a gun?" growls Liam. Mousy shake of the head. "Then you drive."

I honestly had higher hopes of the movie based on the cast and the trailer. I thought it was an imaginative idea that all the torturing and murdering Bryan Mills got up to in the first movie would have people hopping mad at him and looking for revenge. That sense of consequence is usually missing from thrillers, particularly anything with Luc Besson's name on the title and a number at the end. Sadly, the main cast aren't exactly giving it their all, and the sense of jeopardy is lacking. In the first movie, things were dark enough that it genuinely felt like Bryan mightn't catch up with his daughter in time; that we might be watching an actual drama. In the sequel, there's never really a moment when you think there's a genuine risk that either Bryan's daughter or ex-wife will suffer anything more than a chipped nail.

The action all happens in Istanbul, which Bryan Mills explains to his daughter is a place where every invasion back and forth between East and West has gone through. I think Luc Besson might be leaning just a bit too hard on his contra-jihad by action movie tendencies when he comes out with this. I'm losing track, but this is at least the third movie where Luc Besson has flung together a script that revolves around Americans coming to places where Europeans are surrounded by swarthy looking muslimiac outsiders and has slaughtered them with no more apparent compunction than a rat catcher going about his day job. I'm not sure whether it's all intended as some grand parody of America's relationship with the Middle East, or Luc Besson having a lengthy DW Griffith moment on the need to do something more muscular about the growing Islamisation of France, but it sure doesn't FEEL like grand parody. As with the first Taken, the disposable horde are Albanians, but they're Albanians who either speak English or fragments of Arabic, and it's fair to say that there's zero effort to depict any of the complexities of Albania's long miserable history. The geography is also suitably hilarious, with the editing making it look as though there's a customs post between Albania and Turkey.

The movie is the first I've seen in a long time that almost visibly seems to run out of money in the middle. There's a pretty expensive car chase in the middle, which culminates in Liam's daughter crashing a taxi through the security barrier of the US Embassy. Somehow, within minutes of doing this, Liam is cut loose to hunt down the surviving members of the Albanian gang and "do what he does best", which leads to about a half hour of dreary stalking and perfunctory gun and fist play and a speech about how revenge is terrible. It's a wrenching tonal shift from the more high-powered grenade chucking and car chasing in the middle of the movie, and it really did feel as though they'd realised they still had a whole bunch of movie to do and no money left to make it exciting.

The car into the Embassy bit has so much WTF in it, it's almost worth a post in its own right, but briefly; Istanbul isn't the capital of Turkey, so it would have been the Consulate; no US diplomatic mission in the world is vulnerable to a car crashing through its security barriers, because for a decade now they've all been surrounded by various kinds of dragons teeth expressly to stop cars and trucks well outside the possible blast radius of any kind of plausible car bomb; US Marines with a prepositioned 50 cal would have shot any incoming taxi practically to a standstill rather than just dinging it a bit; Liam and his daughter had let off three hand grenades, stolen a taxi, shot a cop, shot about ten other dudes, trashed about a dozen cop cars and a load of private property and stolen some poor hotel maid's off duty clothing - no way they were just walking back out onto the streets of Istanbul out of an Embassy they'd just invaded...


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