Sunday, January 11, 2015

Review: Taken 3 (2015)

Taken 3 (2015)

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for brief strong language

Looking back, the first Taken back in 2008 was a landmark action film on the order of Die Hard or The Matrix. It proved that there was a market for action heroes who were neither the beefcake muscleheads of the old '80s action flicks nor the smaller, leaner men of today's martial arts and superhero films, in the process giving an, at the time, seemingly unimaginable reinvention to the career of acclaimed character actor Liam Neeson. It also proved, in a world of superheroes and sci-fi and fantasy epics, that people still wanted to see some old-school fisticuffs and shootouts on the screen, while also providing a great deal of wish fulfillment for aging baby-boomer dads who now had Bryan Mills as an icon to look up to. It spawned a wave of such films, such as RED, The Expendables, The Equalizer (a film that has held up remarkably upon second viewing), and its own sequel four years later, giving a second wind to what had become a dying breed in "bigger is better" Hollywood: the mid-budget action film that didn't cost nine figures not counting marketing to make. Now, we come to the third film in the series, and does it hold a candle to the original?

The short answer: no. No it doesn't. Taken 3 was a disappointment in nearly every sense of the word. While Liam Neeson was clearly game for the material, he seemed to be alone in such, with most of the cast either phoning it in or getting stuffed into the fridge in the first act. The slower pace was a mixed bag, as it meant that I was spared the incompetent action scenes (oh, I'm getting to that) but also required to pay attention to a plot that, towards the end, was riddled with holes. Worst of all, though, when this film gets down to the reason most people go to see a Taken film, it delivers some of the worst action scenes I've witnessed since Pompeii.

Seriously. I don't know who the cinematographer or editor was on this film, so failing that, I'm going to say this: Olivier Megaton is now next to Paul W. S. Anderson in my ranks of people who should never be allowed in the director's chair of an action film ever again. The shooting and editing on this film's action scenes is so jerky and incoherent that, half the time, I would not for the life of me be able to figure out what was going on on screen if I didn't have any context. You know what, forget my comparisons to Pompeii, that film at least had its decent, spectacle-driven back half to make up for its awful gladiator action in the first hour. I had to go back to Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem to find a mainstream, theatrically-released action movie whose action scenes were so fundamentally, consistently incompetent. From the very first action scene, in which Bryan Mills flees the cops through back alleys, I knew exactly what Mr. Megaton (oh, and seriously: Megaton? That's what you chose for your stage name?) had in store for me: editing so quick it all but gave me a headache, a camera that's flying around all over the place, and me unable to tell who's doing what in a fistfight until it's over and I see Liam Neeson standing over some mooks' corpses. The first car chase was probably the nadir, the camera cutting so fast that I couldn't enjoy the scenes of wrecked cars flying all over the place before I was watching something else.

The action was bad enough that I found myself actually waiting for the slower moments when more would be revealed about the plot, especially given that, for the first two acts at least, it was actually interesting. The story of Taken 3 is mostly unconnected to the first two films -- here, Bryan Mills finds himself accused of murdering his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), and fights to figure out what really happened to her while running from the cops. He learns that Lenore's husband Stuart (Dougray Scott) was deep in debt to a Russian gangster named Malenkov, and that he may have orchestrated the murder and framed Mills. Meanwhile, Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), an LAPD cop investigating Lenore's murder, begins to suspect for his own reasons that Mills is innocent.

This story actually started out pretty good, even if it felt like it borrowed more than a bit from The Fugitive. Unfortunately (spoilers incoming, if you care), it lost me with the big reveal in the third act: that Stuart, Lenore's husband, was the real villain. He had arranged for Malenkov's men to kill Lenore in order to both collect on her substantial life insurance policy and to get Mills to go after Malenkov thinking he was the killer, thus canceling Stuart's debt to Malenkov once the gangster is dead and unable to collect. Even if Mills failed, Stuart would still have his wife's life insurance money with which to pay off Malenkov. It's the sort of thing that requires a deft hand in the writer's chair to avoid from careening off the rails into a mess of plot holes, and unfortunately, the team of Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen did not have what it took to keep a complicated story from growing convoluted. Even when it was all explained at the end, I was still trying to piece it together without running into substantial holes (it's suggested that Malenkov understood that Stuart was trying to screw him by siccing Mills on him, so how did Stuart think he'd get away with it?), and that's before getting into the fact that Mills is able to walk away scot-free at the end despite having committed several felonies over the course of the film.

I haven't even mentioned the subplot involving Kim, Mills' daughter played by Maggie Grace, and that's because, despite the screen time she receives, she barely figures into the story except as a MacGuffin to once more be threatened by vaguely foreign goons. She reminded me of another character with the same name: Kim Bauer from 24, also known as "Bathroom Break Bauer" by some fans due to the fact that the story came to a halt whenever she was on screen. The same was true with this Kim, with her pregnancy subplot and a long and needlessly convoluted scene at her college serving no purpose except to bring back a character from past films and give this at least some connection with those. It certainly didn't help that Grace seemed like she was just there for the easy paycheck, something that afflicted much of the main returning cast not named Liam Neeson, who at the very least seemed interested. Famke Janssen, for instance, was visibly breathing even when Lenore was supposed to be a dead body; the barely-there makeup for her "slashed throat" (to avoid an R rating), which looked more like she'd been choked than anything, didn't help matters. Forest Whitaker likewise seemed bored as Dotzler, never standing out or doing much of anything interesting, let alone utilizing his considerable talent.

Score: 2 out of 5

The plot started out interesting, even if the terrible action scenes did everything they could to destroy my interest, but by the third act I was waiting for this film to finally end already. (Though maybe that was my bladder speaking.) Let's hope the poster is right and that this tired series does, in fact, end here.

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