(SPOILERS) The Taken series’ rep generally seems to be that the first one was good and then Olivier Megaton took over and did for them with his visually dyslexic direction. This is certainly partly true. Megaton’s film grammar is the most incoherent this side of Marc Forster (one wonders why producer Luc Besson, a master of visual storytelling, has repeatedly shown such confidence in him). But the first movie really only has good direction on its side. And Liam Neeson killing bad guys in unrepentant and unreconstituted manner, of course, which can only go so far. As such, Taken 3 is something of a step forward, or at least offers a tentative balancing act. Megaton’s direction remains stupefyingly bad, but there is actually a halfway engaging plot that musters a modicum of interest.
I’m not going to get to carried away praising the picture, mind, since the action is the main draw, and it’s blunderingly inept (there’s a particularly road chase that is downright shocking in its utter lack of correlation between one shot and any other). At another point he manages to drive a car backwards down a lift shaft, for reasons best known to himself. There’s maybe one sequence in which the staging is sufficiently clear to engage (Liam taking out Russians in the drinks section of a convenience store).
Besson and co-writer Robert Mark Kamen had ditched the evil Albanians of the first two movies and gone the reliable route – possibly compulsory, given recent evidence – of making the heavies Russians. They’re well represented by (Brit) Andrew Howard, who had a highly memorable episode in the second season of Banshee (he’s also currently in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I’ve given up on that) and (Brit) Sam Spruell.
Underlining that, even if they’re not playing to nationality, British actors are the go-to-baddies to go to, the real villain of the piece is (Brit) Dougray Scott (playing an American, since we know they’re ultimately much more villainous than Russians). While the plot doesn’t mark him out as the bad guy from the start, the recasting of Xander Berkley’s Stuart St John (now married to Famke Janssen’s Leonore, but not for long) is a fairly hefty clue that something is amiss. You don’t cast the iconic villain from Mission: Impossible 2 just to relegate him to the role of the inconspicuous grieving husband.
So this starts from a different place, thankfully. Kim (Maggie Grace, at college and the definition of a mature student) is not kidnapped (well, not until right at the end), and Bryan Mills is framed for the murder of Leonore during the first 10 minutes. It’s a leaf out of The Bourne Supermacy’s book and, as beloved Kimmy is still in the picture, Bryan can continue to dote unwholesomely. Being a superspy, he can dodge the authorities with ease, of course and he even gets a little help from his friends (as before, Leland Orser is the standout).
Making matters all the more digestible is dogged detective Forest Whitaker on Bryan’s trail. Whitaker’s flourishing all the usual Forest Whitaker ticks and quirks, but that’s fine by me. If there’s any movie where that’s welcome, it’s a redundant Taken sequel. And it’s even fine that the beats of his character wanting Bryan to come in while simultaneously admiring his dedication to his craft are entirely rote; again, tolerance levels for that kind of thing come down to the actor (Don Harvey also appears as one of Forest’s men, Snickers from Hudson Hawk, if you’d wondered where he’d got to).
Neeson is as somnambulant as ever, rolling over and surrendering to the absurdity of his character without so much as a glimmer of knowingness (“Inappropriate, huh?” asks Bryan after bringing Kim a giant panda – not a real one – and champagne). So much so that, when a cop advises Bryan “This is going to end badly for you” and Bryan responds “Don’t be such a pessimist” you wonder if Besson and Kamen got their scripts mixed up (they tend to have about a dozen on the go at any one time by the looks of things).
Along the way, Bryan indulges some obligatory waterboarding (because we need to be reminded the practice is totally justifiable as long as you’re a good guy really) and delivers a ream of exposition of how Dougray done it while simultaneously beating the shit out of him. By this point, the picture has outstayed its welcome by a good 20 minutes (Taken 2 at least had the good manners to be short).
I somehow don’t think anyone’s going to be campaigning for the return of Bryan Mills in a few years the way they have for Jason Bourne, although Taken 3 has made more than enough to justify another outing. Neeson would be best advised to leave his taciturn hard man roles for a while, as two a year was at least one too many for anyone to cope with. Megaton shouldn’t be let anywhere near a franchise he can harm (so why not give him Megatron to play with) and Besson’s about to embark on a big sci-fi epic. Hopefully it will be as fun as he can be (The Fifth Element) rather than as pompously deficient as he’s also capable of (Lucy).