A man with a very particular set of skills

In a career spanning nearly forty years, Liam Neeson seems to have played just about every type of role going, but recently it’s the action man films that I’ve been watching.

Taken (2008)

Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a retired CIA operative now working private security. His former career seems to have alienated wife Lenore, now married to a wealthy businessman who can give daughter Kim all the things she wants. What’s needed is some father/daughter bonding, but Kim jets off to follow celebrity tax dodgers U2 on a tour round Europe. No sooner has she set foot in Paris than Kim and her friend are abducted by an Albanian gang specialising in sex trafficking. The stepfather’s money can’t save her, but Bryan’s old skills can, and so he carves a bloody trail through the European underworld, and keeps cutting until his daughter is safe. There are plenty of alarums and excursions, fire fights and explosions, but if you don’t know how it’s going to turn out then you haven’t been paying attention to Hollywood output for the last twenty plus years. At the end it’s only a matter of how big the body count is going to get. Bryan Mills doesn’t have the depth of Man on Fire’s Creasey, but this is more or less the same plot with a different set of quirks for the hero and minus the sacrificial ending and Tony Scott’s stunning visual sensibility. At the finale father and daughter are reunited, with a new appreciation of each other, and ironically the skills that drove Kim’s parents apart are the very same abilities that allow Mills to save her (subtext – Lenore, you should have cut the guy a bit more slack). For the viewer it’s a fun fest where we get to root for the good guy and hiss the bad guy, with moral quibbles about the use of torture etc., easily pushed to the side as those sex traffickers so obviously deserve what they get. Neeson is excellent as Mills, both cold and chilling, but also coming across as eminently reasonable, a high functioning psychopath. On the other hand Maggie Grace’s performance as daughter Kim was a bit too gushy and girlish for my liking, somebody’s stereotypical idea of a teenage brat, and soon started to grate, but a minor quibble. Bottom line, it’s a thriller, and thrills are what we get, though I doubt if I’ll remember much about it in a year or so (which means I can enjoy it all over again – yay!).

Unknown (2011)

Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris. After arriving in Berlin with his wife for a science conference, Harris is involved in an accident and stuck in a coma for four days. Recovering he finds that his identity has been taken by somebody else, with even his wife denying that he is who he claims to be. And as he tries to make sense of things, Harris is attacked by hired killers, suggesting that he has somehow become embroiled in an assassination plot. The truth is actually a bit more complicated, but I won’t spoil things for anyone else by giving away the rest of the plot, as for once the twist, unlikely as it seems, is a big part of what this film is about. Too much here depends on selective amnesia and instant personality change for the film to seem credible, though not being an expert on mental states I guess it could all be entirely plausible (just didn’t feel that way to me). Taking things at face value, we’re left with a conspiracy thriller with the usual quota of fire fights and explosions, tension cranked up and a subtext about the goodness in us all. Neeson appears to be going through the motions, and to my mind didn’t come across as quite as desperate as he is supposed to be given the situation. Co-star Diane Kruger as the illegal immigrant who is enlisted, for the most specious of reasons, to help him doesn’t bring much to an undemanding role either, while the other characters, with a couple of exceptions, struck me as ciphers. It was worth watching the once, in a pass the time sort of way, but not one to reprise as next time around the big reveal on which so much of its appeal hinges won’t be a surprise.

Taken 2 (2012)

The moral of this franchise seems to be that Americans should not travel abroad or they will get kidnapped. This time around it’s the turn of not just Kim but ex-wife Lenore (now separated from the wealthy businessman) as well. In Istanbul to see Mills, they get taken by a gang run by the father of one of the Albanian sex traffickers he killed in the first film. He wants revenge on Mills, and has taken his loved ones to lure our hero into a trap. And you can guess the rest, in broad strokes if not the fine detail. Bang, bang, boom, bang, bang, car chase, bang, bang, with a backing track of screams throughout. Having bonded with his daughter through killing one lot of bad guys, Mills gets a shot at making up with his wife by taking out another. I haven’t seen Taken 3 but wonder if the plot of that one involves him getting taken by Albanian in-laws and rescued by Lenore and Kim: there are only so many variations you can play here, surely. Neeson plays the role with the same zest as previously, while Maggie Grace continued to irritate me with an unconvincing transformation into junior action hero (no dad, I won’t call the police, I’ll just take this gun out of your case and run across rooftops until I find you and drop the weapon down the chimney like it’s Xmas). It’s a case of diminishing returns, with some if not most of the novelty of the original wearing thin; the film pretty much a popcorn muncher and nothing more substantial than that. I enjoyed it for the time that it lasted, but don’t think I’ll bother to watch it again (unless I decide to watch all three films in a glutton for punishment type of evening). Poor man’s Bourne. I will however concede that I was inanely delighted to learn that the director’s name was Olivier Megaton. Little things.

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