Directed by Pierre Morel, written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
“You live in your little bubble here with your maids and your servants!” It’s like Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills is admonishing all of America when he tries to tell his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), that she and their 17-year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), live sheltered lives. They/we don’t know the real world beyond our creature comforts. They/we don’t know what dangers lie in wait outside the security of US borders. The irony that Neeson, Janssen, and at least two of the filmmakers are European hasn’t escaped me. Is this entire series meant to be satire, a big French joke on American attitudes?
For those who don’t know, Neeson became an action star thanks to Taken, playing a middle-aged former CIA guy (he was 55 when the first one was made) trying to reconnect with his daughter. That’s tough to do when he hasn’t been around much—too busy on covert ops helping stage coups in Latin American countries, one supposes, rather than being there to tuck her in at night. Lenore is now hooked up with an obnoxious rich guy, Stuart (perennial asshole Xander Berkeley), who buys her a pony for her birthday. No competition with that crappy karaoke machine, Dad, even if she does wanna be a singer.
When Kim and a friend go on a trip to Paris, they immediately get snatched by Albanian sex slavers. Because that’s what happens to unaccompanied American teenagers in those terrible, foreign cities. They ignore their parents’ advice and just see what happens! No respect these kids today, lemme tell ya.
The template here are the action pictures of the 1970s, Death Wish, Walking Tall, and Dirty Harry. Older guys using violence to make things right, usually without any help from existing systems of law. They have, as Mills says, “a special set of skills”, and the laws of the land mean nothing compared to their thirst for justice/vengeance.
At their heart, these are right wing fantasies made for guys to feel more agency in their lives. Worse, they tap into conservative American xenophobia, the idea that your average accented, hirsute foreigners are dirty pimps. Torture and death are too good for them. And guys who get weak, get corrupted, and take the easy way out—like a certain French associate of Mills’ from the old days? Mills shoots his wife. Collateral damage.
The politics are appalling, but that’s sometimes the case with exploitation movies, action movies, or porn. It doesn’t mean there isn’t some fun to be had. I’d suggest that if you can manage to not take this at all seriously, it has a reasonable amount of entertainment value.
A lot of the appeal has to do with the movie’s star. Neeson is much better than Taken needs him to be, but that’s good. He brings a dose of gravitas to all of this nonsense.
His physicality is convincing. He’s said he’s a fan of Robert Mitchum, and he has a similar kind of grizzled, gravelly presence at his age. As he single-handedly solves French special service corruption and cleans up the Parisienne sex slavery scene, there are some decently shot action sequences and nice use of locations, even a not bad car chase. Suspense is kept a bubbly medium thanks to some sharp direction and continual reference to the limited amount of time before any abduction becomes a lost cause.
Also for those who don’t know, Neeson gives a monologue on a cell phone that’s become iconic. See it for that alone, and so you can get the joke when someone references it.
Taken 2 (2012)
Directed by Oliver Megaton, written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
The lesson here is that bad parenting, which Bryan Mills exhibited back in the first movie, being absent for most of his daughter’s childhood, is something he has in common with the fathers of all those Albanians he killed. They feel a lot of shame for having raised a bunch of sex slavers, which gets redirected to anger and vindictiveness when Mills put their kids in the ground. Actually, I don’t really know all that for sure, I’m just trying to read a little depth into paper-thin, uni-dimensional villain dads.
When Bryan Mills has a job to do in Istanbul, he invites ex-wife, Lenore—now separated from her rich douchebag second husband—and daughter, Kim, to come along. Those Albanians—led by all-purpose Eastern European character actor Rade Serbedzija—have found him on his post-assignment vacation with Lenore and Kim. Cue more threatening men with beards, all conveniently speaking English this time, and chases through Turkish bazaars. I think Mills kills even more of them this time.
Megaton can’t direct a hand-to-hand fight to save his life—too many jarring, uncoordinated edits—but he’s a little better with suspense and car chases, so at least he’s got that going for him.
That said, everything here feels a whole lot more generic than the last film. A scene of Mills urging his daughter to drive through the streets of Istanbul has some of the worst sound and picture editing I’ve seen in awhile. If I’m spending my time thinking about these technical details to amuse myself through an action movie, the movie isn’t doing what it’s supposed to. The most unintentionally hilarious moment happens when they drive through a heavily barricaded American embassy gate—who were all those soldiers and their heavy machine guns expecting, anyway? ISIS? And after all of that, Mills just walks out of there.
Taken 2 was so bad, I just about decided I couldn’t put myself through a third. But I took the bullet.
Taken 3 (2015)
Directed by Oliver Megaton, written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Remember how Stuart was Xander Berkeley in the first one? Somehow he’s morphed into Dougray Scott in this second sequel, who doesn’t look anything like Xander Berkeley. What, was Berkeley busy? Also, remember when Kim wanted to be a singer? What happened with that dream, anyway?
Continuity, character traits and nuance? Not something these filmmakers are too worried about. Not when their hero takes to waterboarding one of his antagonists to glean information.
At the start of Taken 3, Lenore is still trying to make it work with (replacement) Stuart, but still tries to seduce Mills when they get together for dinner. You know he regrets giving that a miss because the next day she’s dead, and he’s framed for her murder.
Cue more of Megaton’s bloody awful action scenes. You can have clunky dialogue and a recycled plot in an action movie, and all is forgiven if the good stuff, the action, works well. It needs to be coherent and graceful—only Paul Greengrass has shown any real poetry with jagged, smash-cut action. And Megaton is no Greengrass. If anything, his shooting and editing of these scenes has gotten more slapdash and confusing since #2. In that one at least the car chases had some coherence, but here a car appears to go down into a building shaft, then explode, with the fireball travelling up five stories, but it’s hard to tell what’s actually happening.
A lesson to Mr Megaton: Go watch your producer/screenwriter Luc Besson’s early films, or even his one from last summer, Lucy. Audiences should always know where they are, geographically, in these action and fight sequences, something Besson has always had a knack for. Hard to believe he didn’t pull Megaton aside and give him a talking to, but given the soap-opera dialogue and overall lameness of the script, I don’t think he’s paying much attention.
Mills is now fighting cops, beating them senseless and escaping from custody, not once but twice. Even if he clears his name, he’s going away for a long time for that shit. That should give the film some tension, but somehow it’s just lifeless and repetitive.
As usual, all Mills cares about is the safety of his daughter, who is also in danger from whoever really murdered her mother. If that’s the case, why does he, in a truly boneheaded move, arrange to meet with her in person, even though the cops are totally shadowing her every move hoping to catch him. That’s not going to endanger her at all. And when he meets her, he hasn’t got any big message, he just wants to give her a hug. Aw.
Turns out it’s Slippery Stu who has a hand in all this. He owes money to some badass Russians and they’re the ones who killed Lenore. But why would they do that at Mills’ pad? None of this makes sense, until it kind of does. But even then not really.
A single action set-piece delivers mild thrills when Mills has to take down the Russian kingpin in his high-security penthouse suite, though even that’s bungled when he magically escapes from a rapidly descending elevator and somehow teleports into the basement.
In the meantime, the cops are getting smarter, thanks to the dogged Captain Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), who has an unexplained rubberband and chess piece fixation. Despite all this, Kim once again has to be rescued by her father—is it any wonder he always infantilizes her given her frequent kidnappings?
This looks like the end of the Taken movies, thankfully, with many men dead, many police cars smashed, and many cops beaten and humiliated. And does Mills finally have to face some kind of justice for all the men he’s killed, the wrath of the LAPD or the California courts?
What do you think?