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Friday, January 9, 2015

Review: Taken 3

I was sitting in the middle of the theater. The second action sequence, a car chase where Liam Neeson's superspy was evading arrest, was going on, and I happened to look around the theater. The group of seven college kids behind me were all whispering, giggling, eyes off the screen. The two fifteen-year-olds in front of me were both looking at their phones, one of them idly checking Facebook. The couple to my left were cuddling, whispering in each others ears, occasionally kissing. And I realized, all these people had paid to watch an action movie and then gotten so bored by the incomprehensible, poorly-shot, poorly-edited action, they had simply... checked out.

And then I realized that I had done the exact same thing. Taken 3 was an endurance test, and we all failed.

I understand why Taken was such a success. The 2009 film, written by Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) was crisply directed by Pierre Morel (District 13) had transformed the way audiences looked at soulful Irishman Liam Neeson. It was a film that was about something, a movie with an almost palpable yearning for the imagined purity of the strict gender roles of yore. It was philosophically disgusting, but visceral action, a grimy premise, and a strong thematic through line made sure it resonated powerfully with audiences - particularly older men. But the second film lost track of that thread almost immediately, bringing in a new director (Olivier Megaton, Colombiana) who didn't know the first thing about putting an action scene together and otherwise largely just repeating the story from the first film. It made money, though, so Megaton returns with a movie even worse than the last.

Superdad Bryan Mills is back. His college-bound daughter is pregnant - thank goodness; I was worried she might accidentally complete a degree and go on to have a *shudder* career - and his ex-wife badly wants to cheat on her wealthier, younger husband with him, but knows he's too honorable to do so. Life is pretty good for Superdad, but when his ex-wife winds up with her throat cut in his bed, the LAPD understandably has questions for him. So he punches them all out and escapes custody (repeatedly, often while killing a number of civilians in the process), vowing to hunt down his ex-wife's murderers no matter how much evidence he has to destroy or corrupt in the process. There are also Russian gangsters involved, because it isn't a Taken movie if Eurotrash heavies aren't menacing the Superfamily.

The basic premise honestly isn't that bad. It's certainly been done before - often, and better - but 'vengeful man on the run' movies can be a blast. Audiences like competence, they like seeing people who excel at something do it really goddamn well, so watching confident American superspy Bryan Mills hide out and hunt down the killers should be a blast. Hell, that's pretty much what John Wick did last year, and John Wick is one of the best American action movies I've seen in years. But John Wick's action was clear - you always knew who was where, who was firing what, what the goals were. In Taken 3, outside of a single brief mostly well-staged fight in a liquor store, the action is effectively gibberish, an almost surreal montage of seemingly random shots of screeching metal or exploding chunks of concrete.

If the action's a mess, it could still be semi-salvaged with a decent story. Unfortunately, Besson and Kamen have hung us out to dry there, too. The police are simultaneously incompetent and corrupt, serving functionally no purpose in the story beyond being a roadblock for Neeson, but they take up a lot of screentime. Even Whitaker's 'competent' detective Hot on Neeson's trail is largely around to eat virtually every bit of evidence he finds (I'm not making this up). Meanwhile, the Russian mob plot doesn't really even start until the last 30 minutes of the film, giving us one brief action sequence and a twist so predictable there was an audible groan from the audience.

I understand the appeal of Liam Neeson: Raging Badass. Neeson is a soulful actor, an immensely talented performer with expressive eyes and a lumbering physique, and he makes a phenomenal modern avatar for the sort of gruff, soft-spoken masculinity that made John Wayne's Westerns such a success. But Taken 3 is a bad movie; worse, perhaps, for its target audience, Taken 3 is an incredibly boring movie. The Grey is on Netflix Instant. A Walk Among the Tombstones is available on Amazon. If you're craving some badass Neeson action, do yourself and your loved ones a favor, and give one of those a shot. Even for the most die-hard Taken fans, there's nothing here for you.

Taken 3 is currently available in theaters across the country. Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen and directed by Olivier Megaton, Taken 3 stars Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, and Maggie Grace.
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