Bryan Mills, Liam Neeson’s ex-CIA action hero with the particular set of skills, appears to occupy the same circle of hell once inhabited by the Death Wish franchise’s Paul Kersey. In each Taken film, Bryan’s quiet, cosy life is repeatedly spun into chaos by stubbled, scar-faced foreign villains, who kidnap his womenfolk and force him to go on a bloody rampage of neck-breakings, discharged firearms and torture.
Like the heads on a hydra, those scar-faced foreign villains keep coming back as fast as Bryan can snap their necks or shoot their wild-eyed faces, so that the cycle of kidnapping, retrieval and death goes on and on, seemingly without end.
Taken 3 presents a new rotation in Bryan’s increasingly dismal cycle. Terrifyingly, time seems to have moved on for everyone except Bryan – his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) is now at college, shacked up with a boyfriend and unexpectedly pregnant, while ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) has a millionaire husband, Stuart St John (Dougray Scott). But Bryan’s still just as he was in 2008, with the same hair parted roughly in the middle, the same leather jacket and the same disappointed scowl. He’s too old to work in the field for the CIA, but just young enough to engage in protracted and wearying fist-fights with the revolving door of thugs who wander into his line of sight.
This time, however, the action takes place not in some picturesque city in Europe, as we saw in Taken (Paris) and Taken 2 (Istanbul), but Bryan’s own back yard: Los Angeles. Lenore’s shady husband Stuart owes a gigantic sum of money to some vicious Russian gangsters, led by one Oleg Malankov (Sam Spruell). When Stuart can’t pay up, the gangsters do something dreadful to Lenore to punish him, and for numerous, convoluted reasons involving bagels and cottage cheese, Bryan’s put in the frame for the crime.
On Bryan’s case is chess piece-fondling Inspector Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), who’s constantly three steps behind our leather-clad hero as he tracks down Malankov and his assorted henchmen from central casting.
Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the previous Taken entries, seem to have long since run out of creative situations for Bryan Mills to slaughter his way out of. Taken 3‘s a Frankenstein’s monster-like grab bag of soapy drama and action scenes lifted straight from 90s thrillers – The Fugitive and Face/Off, to name two – without any particular creative spin or logic.
The sense of malaise extends to returning director Olivier Megaton, who somehow manages to make a high-octane chase down a California freeway – complete with tumbling cargo container – look about as thrilling as pushing a trolley around a supermarket. Like Taken 2, this latest entry is a 12A, and its filmmakers have long since given up having Bryan snap the necks of his enemies, since the censors kept asking them to take the sound effects back out in any case. Instead, Bryan just punches people and bashes their heads into things like beer fridges and coffee tables, which soon grows alarmingly repetitive.
Forest Whitaker’s performance as Dotzler is one of the few highlights; there’s a warmth and gentle humour to his screen persona that cuts through the flat writing of his stock character, and it’s arguable that he didn’t need the various props (the chess piece, the elastic band he keeps snapping around his wrist) to make him stand out from the other anonymous souls drifting across the screen like ghosts. But even Whitaker can’t enliven a film that entirely lacks the brutal snap of the first Taken or, at the very least, the entertainingly absurd excesses of the otherwise inferior Taken 2.
Neeson, normally the reliable, gruff core of these sorts of films, seems bored by it all; he can barely summon up the dramatic vigour to make a decent Bryan Mills phone call. The first film’s terse, catchy, “I will find you and I will kill you,” has by now devolved into an apologetic, “I don’t know who, and I don’t know why, but I’m going to find out”.
During Taken 3‘s first act, my first thought was that Famke Janssen’s role in the Taken series has been utterly thankless. A cameo in the first film, unconscious for most of the second, and barely given three lines of dialogue in Taken 3, the role’s hardly a meaty one for an actress of her talents. But then again, maybe Lenore’s the lucky one.
Consider Bryan Mills, still trapped in his eternal cycle of kidnapping and revenge. In his 60s and never getting any older; immortal yet vulnerable enough to feel every kick, punch and bullet wound inflicted by the Euro-villains washing over him like a tidal wave.
Taken 3 isn’t the worst action film ever made, but it’s among the most leaden, the most tedious, the most resigned. Exhaustion oozes from the screen. It’s as though Bryan’s saying, “Enough, please. Just let me be at peace. Let me finally have rest.”
But for as long as people keep queuing up for these increasingly depressing action sequels, Bryan’s personal hell of loss, death and bagels has the potential to continue ceaselessly, meaninglessly, until the end of cinema itself.
Taken 3 is out on now in UK cinemas.
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