Review: TAKEN 3, Action Cinema For Teenage Softies

Editor, Asia; Hong Kong, China (@Marshy00)
Review: TAKEN 3, Action Cinema For Teenage Softies
Liam Neeson's third outing as over-protective family man Bryan Mills sees him on the run for murder after his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) turns up dead in his apartment. Forest Whitaker heads the investigation, which soon enough uncovers the involvement of nasty Russian gangsters, but Olivier Megaton's uneven, anaemic direction ensures Taken 3 fails again to recapture the magic of the original.

2008's Taken was a surprise hit for writer-producer Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel, dictating a surprise shift in career path for journeyman actor Liam Neeson. Since starting out in the industry in the late 70s, Neeson only really surfaced as a bankable leading man in the 90s, but even then struggled to define himself as either an action hero or romantic lead. 1993's Schindler's List proved a major breakthrough, giving the Irish-born thesp huge critical claim, but he seemed reluctant to settle for straight dramatic roles. Into the 2000s Neeson remained in the A List but flittered uneasily through secondary and supporting roles in Gangs of New York, Kingdom of Heaven and Batman Begins, even voicing Aslan the lion in The Chronicles of Narnia

Meanwhile, French filmmaker Luc Besson had stepped away from directing in the late 90s, turning his attentions to grooming a stable of burgeoning young directorial talent. Co-founding EuropaCorp in 2000, he concentrated on writing and producing a string of mid-range genre flicks, turning a tidy profit with action vehicles for the likes of Jet Li, Jason Statham and Jean Reno, while handing over directorial duties to proteges Louis Le Terrier, Pierre Morel and Olivier Megaton. 

In 2008, Besson cast Neeson in his latest action thriller, Taken, about a retired special forces agent whose daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers while in Paris. Using his "special set of skills", Mills flies to Europe and rescues her, killing half the Albanian mafia in the process.Taken was a surprise hit, resonating with mature fans of old-school action films with its practical stuntwork and hand-to-hand combat. Its success bagged Neeson the lead role of Hannibal Smith in Joe Carnahan's big screen version of The A-Team, which in turn ushered in a string of similar roles for Neeson, including Carnahan's The Grey (probably the best of the bunch), as well as Unknown, Non-Stop and inevitably Taken 2

The 2012 sequel became the highest-grossing French film at the international box office, despite many fans of the original rejecting its ludicrous plot - in which Mills teams up with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) to rescue his kidnapped wife in Istanbul - and toned-down violence. Again produced and co-written by Luc Besson (together with Robert Mark Kamen), directorial duties were passed from Morel to Megaton, who again helms this third instalment, and thus ensures it suffers from many of the same problems.

After cavorting around Europe for two films, Taken 3 takes place entirely within the confines of Los Angeles. Bryan Mills remains a slightly clingy and weird father to his college-age daughter Kim, buying her oversized stuffed animals and making surprise visits at her apartment with bottles of champagne. Kim has just discovered that she is pregnant, but opts not to tell her Dad, because he thinks raising kids is hard. Ex-wife Lenore (Janssen) has remarried wealthy businessman Stuart St. John (Dougray Scott), but things don't appear to be going well, and she frequently turns to Bryan for support. That is until she turns up dead and Mills is framed for her murder. 

In many ways Taken 3 is essentially a remake of The Fugitive, but without that film's sense of scale or interest in character development. We know from the film's prologue that a murderous gang of Russian mobsters lurk somewhere in the background, but before Mills can go after them, he has to lose the cops and make sure Kim is ok. Turning to his trio of ex-service buddies (Leland Orser, Jon Grimes and the other one that keeps getting re-cast), Mills is soon set-up in the L.A. sewers with his own personal command centre, where he can scour mobile phone and car GPS records while hiding from law enforcement nemesis Inspector Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker). 

The biggest problems with Taken 3 are its pacing and overwhelming reluctance to be violent. The first act is an interminable chore, when the script insists on reinforcing Mills' existing relationships with characters we already know, when it should be building them with the film's new additions. From his first introduction, it is clear that Stuart, Lenore's new husband, doesn't much like Mills or his close relationship with his wife. But instead of taking the time to explore that friction, Besson fills his script with extended sequences of Mills and Kim uncomfortably struggling to talk to each other about perfectly ordinary family stuff. 

Later on, there is great potential for Dotzler and Mills to create the kind of respectful yet adversarial rivalry that worked so well between Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. Whitaker certainly has the ability to flesh out his character, and does his damnedest to fill the gaps between his lines with idiosyncrasies and tics (he constantly fiddles with a rubber band and a white knight chess piece), but Besson seems more interested in following Dotzler's slow-witted subordinates (Don Harvey and Dylan Bruno) as they plod around town achieving precious little along the way. By the time our focus is directed towards the Russians in act 3, the action literally grinds to a halt so that a character can narrate a detailed biography of Oleg Malankov's nefarious accolades, as we have seen practically nothing of him since the film's opening scene.

For a franchise purported to be all about punching and shooting its way through a sea of bad guys, the Taken series as become a woefully bloodless affair. Taken 3 is conspicuously devoid of blood splatters and gunshot wounds despite numerous characters being gunned down or beaten to a pulp. On more than one occasion dialogue has been noticeably ADR-ed to soften swearing ("fucking" becomes "screwing" etc) in order to secure a PG-13 rating in the US. All this begs the question, just who are these films for? Surely the teen audience has better things to do than watch a 62-year-old parent with boundary issues pretend to punch and shoot a bowl-cut sporting Ruskie who struts around in his underwear? Meanwhile, older viewers who can relate to Mills' world-weariness and appreciate the validity of a firmly placed punch to the windpipe have little time for such soft-edged, diluted nonsense. 

What makes Taken 3 feel most redundant is that it comes so soon after Luc Besson's own directorial return-to-form. Lucy was an action-packed, R-rated thriller with a spunky female lead that dared to take unexpected leaps into sci-fi territory just for the sheer hell of it. Taken 3 is close to being the almost genetic opposite. Also in recent months, genre fans were spoilt rotten by Keanu Reeves' deliriously over-the-top John Wick - which essentially tells the exact same story as Taken 3 (if Famke Janssen was an adorable beagle pup), yet does so with more innovation, ambition and blood squibs than Olivier Megaton will ever see in his entire career.

Taken 3 may be marginally better than Taken 2, if only because it doesn't ask Maggie Grace to run across rooftops using hand grenades like we'd use a dog whistle, but it is still an incredibly disappointing, ultimately pointless endeavour. Barring one borderline acceptable freeway chase, the action is incoherent and nonsensical (Mills inexplicably survives at least two car explosions), the fighting is toothless and timid, and the script lumbering and wasteful. Neeson apparently only agreed to do a third film on the condition nobody was in fact "taken" this time around, which tells you all you need to know about why this film exists at all. Check your wallets, as Neeson, Besson and Co. have just used their very special skills and taken us all for a ride once again.

Taken 3

  • Olivier Megaton
  • Luc Besson
  • Robert Mark Kamen
  • Luc Besson (characters)
  • Robert Mark Kamen (characters)
  • Liam Neeson
  • Forest Whitaker
  • Famke Janssen
  • Maggie Grace
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ActionLiam NeesonLuc BessonOlivier MegatonTaken 3Robert Mark KamenForest WhitakerFamke JanssenMaggie GraceThriller

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