It’s honestly a surprise it took this long in Liam Neeson’s career to become an action star. The stern features, the imposing stature, and the thick Irish brogue that even when Americanized hisses menace? The only thing that kept him away from Taken 3 for all that time was talent and a desire to stay awake.
That is not to say that Taken 3 is a talentless affair. On the contrary, it requires a certain degree of skill to produce something this professionally competent while totally devoid of soul or wit. But for the first time in his recent string of New Year donnybrooks, even Neeson looks inescapably bored. In fact, for much of its running time, his greatest foe appears to be the narrative NyQuil he’s constantly grappling with, and frankly the battle’s infectious.
When Taken 3 starts, life has returned to normal for Bryan Mills (Neeson), the world’s deadliest name-taker who on his off time is a surprisingly nerdy dad. He’ll sweetly buy a giant plush panda for his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), and she’ll humor the old man with smiles and delicate revelations that she’s pregnant. We can understand, however, Bryan’s refusal to see her as a grown up. After all, between these three films, she’s been going to college since at least 2007.
Trouble only starts when Bryan continues flirting with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), much to the chagrin of her newest husband Stuart (Dougray Scott in a thankless role). What Stuart does isn’t exactly clear, but he sleazes smarm long before Lenore shows up dead in Bryan’s apartment, and of course the cops think Bryan did it. Kim knows better, Stuart is indifferent, and lead LAPD investigator Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) just wants to clock out for the day and it isn’t even 10am yet. Chases and fistfights ensue.
Seven years since the original Taken kicked everyone’s ass with its no nonsense and highly efficient set of skills, it has become nothing more than a first quarter paycheck dispenser for a whole lot of unenthused people. To be fair, Taken 3 is probably better than Taken 2. Yet, whereas that previous dud seemed to try to build on the first film (and fail miserably) by flipping the script with Maggie Grace saving her kidnapped father, this time around the only thing that’s been taken is the audience on a very long ride. About 109 minutes to be exact.
In that first film, Liam Neeson’s charming everyman awkwardness giving way to cold-blooded murder and hotheaded francophobia at the drop of a shotgun shell was a gonzo novelty, as was its blunt force trauma pacing. But in the case of Taken 3, director Olivier Megaton captures the bloodbath with all the precision and craftsmanship of a top of the line direct to video movie. Chase scenes begin and end with Neeson raising or lowering his hands in the proper order, and often stuntmen fill in the rest—albeit there are several set-pieces where the hero’s escape is a total mystery to the audience, as if crucial moments were never even mounted before a camera.
But if Neeson’s punch is lacking the follow through it once did, Whitaker as his dogged law enforcement pursuer is bringing all the heat and blood-boil of gazpacho soup. It is unclear if the laid back demeanor of his performance is a consequence of the script or a total lack of interest, but there are also multiple scenes where his Det. Dotzler tells underlings to not bother on following up leads or clues, because he (nor the film’s production budget) can be bothered. Not that I am complaining that the movie got to its conclusion at a breezy clip.
The few redeeming features of the movie amount to Neeson’s relationships with those he’s not holding at a gun’s end. Three films in, Neeson and Grace have developed a genuine rapport when they get to play father-and-daughter scenes, be it in peril or at brunch. I wouldn’t venture so far as to say that their sequences carry anything approximating weight or pathos, but there is an undeniable perkiness mutually shared by actors spared from moments of banality. Likewise, Neeson’s returning crew of spook sidekicks, including the always-welcome Leland Orser as loyal Sam, provides the kind of levity previously delivered by Neeson’s now absent deadpan.
But the movie is still unavoidably left wanting, particularly if it is going to wade into the murdered wife cliché. Neeson and Janssen’s scenes are too brief and the whole enterprise too flat to justify this one-armed man trope with the kind of urgency or authenticity necessary to make it feel fresh. Instead, one simply wishes that since her murderer had more than one appendage at his disposal, that he hadn’t stopped at just the bride of this fractured marriage.
During the prologue of Taken 3, a hapless man who may as well be wearing a red shirt is taken hostage by the film’s Russian villains. The gangsters require this small-time clerk to open a life-size safe, and when they discover the contents within, they leave him to a shadowy end inside the vault. Still, it could be worse; they could have put Taken 3 on a loop to keep him company.
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