The Taken Trilogy
Taken (November 4/08)
A 21st century riff on Commando, Taken casts Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills - a former spy who is forced to put his old skills to use after his daughter (Maggie Grace's Kim) is kidnapped while on vacation in France. Director Pierre Morel - working from Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen's screenplay - has emerged with an unexpectedly thrilling actioner that effectively blends the tongue-in-cheek sensibilities of its '80s progenitors with the grittiness of the Bourne series, although there's little doubt that the film's success is due primarily to Neeson's absolutely spellbinding work as the seemingly unstoppable central character. Neeson's notoriously intense demeanor proves instrumental in Bryan's transformation from uptight father to unrelenting badass, with the actor's tough-as-nails, thoroughly riveting portrayal elevating what's already an incredibly entertaining and instantly indelible example of the action genre. And although Morel's penchant for punching up high-octane interludes with quick cuts and shaky camerawork is lamentable, there's simply no denying the strength of the progressively inventive fight sequences in which Bryan comes face to face with a series of brutal baddies. The effectiveness of the film's myriad of confrontations is undoubtedly heightened by one's rooting interest in Bryan's success, as the character's single-minded, take-no-prisoners modus operandi is refreshingly free of sentiment and compassion (ie his decision to rescue a female hostage is based not on sympathy but rather on her ability to provide him with information). The end result is a contemporary action masterpiece that surely ranks alongside the best that the genre has to offer, with the film certainly breathing life into a cinematic category that's been slowly-but-surely sliding into oblivion thanks to such woefully incompetent efforts as Wanted, Hitman, and Max Payne.
A passable yet underwhelming sequel, Taken 2 follows Liam Neeson's Bryan Mills as he's once again forced to embark on an ass-kicking spree after his family is targeted by nefarious villains. There's little doubt that Taken 2, like its predecessor, suffers from an aggressively tedious opening half hour that's heavy on melodrama and light on action, with Neeson's solid performance and the promise of impending violence going a long way towards sustaining one's waning interest. And although the inclusion of elements designed to echo the first movie is often laughable (eg Bryan calls up his daughter, while at gunpoint, to warn her that he and her mother are about to be abducted), Taken 2, once it gets going, is exactly the kind of compulsively watchable actioner that one has come to expect from producer Luc Besson - with the agreeable atmosphere heightened by Neeson's stirring performance and the sporadic emphasis on ludicrous yet entertaining set pieces (eg Bryan figures out his location by listening to a series of explosions around the city). It's just as clear, however, that the movie is never quite able to recapture the palpable intensity and propulsive momentum that defined the original, with the by-the-numbers nature of Besson and Robert Mark Kamen's screenplay resulting in a rather generic feel that extends to virtually every aspect of the proceedings. (And, of course, the movie's lamentable PG-13 rating is especially disappointing this time around, as Olivier Megaton's kinetic visuals ensure that it's impossible to comfortably discern what's happening within several key fight sequences.) Taken 2 is, in the end, a phoned-in sequel that nevertheless gets the job done, though it's difficult, given the effectiveness of 2008's Taken, not to have expected something a little more memorable from the film.
Taken 3 (January 9/14)
The Taken series comes to a (possible) close with this third entry, in which Liam Neeson's Bryan Mills embarks on a quest to clear his name (and track down the real killer) after he's falsely accused of murder. Though it boasts a superb and action-packed third act, Taken 3, the longest of the franchise, has been saddled with an erratic opening hour that admittedly proves a test to one's patience - as director Olivier Megaton, working from Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen's script, places an ongoing emphasis on the exploits of several periphery characters. This is especially true of Megaton's decision to spend far more time than necessary with Forest Whitaker's pursuing detective, as the film takes a demonstrable hit each and every time the action cuts away from Mill's engaging antics. It doesn't help, either, that the movie's midsection suffers from a paucity of precisely the sort of action that one might've expected, with one's desire to see Liam Neeson's character punch and kick his way through various baddies left unsatiated until the aforementioned final act. (The movie's problems are exacerbated by Megaton's incompetent direction, as the filmmaker suffuses each and every action sequence with a jittery, kinetic feel that renders such moments virtually unintelligible.) The viewer is, however, rewarded with a tremendously entertaining climax that delivers everything that one might've expected and hoped for, and it's clear that the effectiveness of this stretch essentially compensates for the inconsistency of everything preceding it - which ultimately confirms Taken 3's place as a sequel that's right in line with its immediate predecessor (ie neither of these films come close to the highs reached by the 2008 original).