Taken 2

What I do best

One or two good action pictures make it to the top of the pile each year.  Only once or twice a century, however, does a film sequel outshine its predecessor, especially when the original idea was as thin as a film like Taken.  Don’t be mistaken: the idea is still “any excuse for Liam Neeson to beat up non-Americans” (despite the fact that Neeson himself is Irish), but Taken 2 is better than the original for two reasons: it gives Neeson’s character an emotion or two, and it makes better use of its supporting cast.  The secret?  Acknowledging that they’re people.  Even if they hopelessly revolve around a male action hero, it’s nice that they seem important to him, and Taken 2 focuses more on the theme of fatherhood and responsibility (even if it does so mostly with action) than the first film, which only sought to find new ways of piling bodies as quickly as possible.

The story follows Bryan Mills (Neeson) and his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) as they try to resume their lives after the events of the first film, in which Mills saved Kim from a ragtag group of Albanian criminals and sex traffickers.  The biggest conflict in Mills’ life is now whether he can train Kim to ace her driver’s test.  He’s also spending more time with his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), whose new boyfriend happens to be a Spiteful Sleaze.  Before the charming family scenes, though, we witness Murad (Rade Šerbedžija), father of Marko, a goon who met a particularly unsettling demise at Mills’ hands in the first film, making plans with his own goons to take revenge upon Mills.  Considering the fact that Mills killed this man’s son in order to save his daughter, I think there must be a circular logic meme in there somewhere.  Long story short, Murad’s men kidnap not Kim, but (surprise!) Mills and Lenore, who are just beginning to reconcile their relationship.

This is where it gets good: in a very nice role reversal, teenaged Kim must save her parents from the bad guys.  It doesn’t happen instantly, either.  A lot of time is spent alone with Kim, who takes some direction from her father over the phone and improvises the rest.  It takes some suspension of disbelief concerning law enforcement and witnesses, considering a few of the things Kim does might render her an international terrorist in real life, but it’s wonderful to see her evolve into a breathing organism as opposed to the cardboard “teenage girl” stock character she played in the original.  And of course, Maggie Grace, who shone as Shannon on TV’s Lost, is second-to-none when it comes to crying convincingly on screen.  Best of all, she gets to play a person with real concerns and genuine bravery – and she gets to do most of it while fully clothed!

Once freed from prison, Mills teams with Kim to rescue Lenore, who is still in the clutches of Murad and his dedicated team of bloodthirsty fighting machines.  The film then becomes a somewhat formulaic two-way cat-and-mouse game between Murad and Mills, who must fight his way through legions of enemies before he, Murad, Kim, and Lenore are the only remaining players.  Refreshingly, Murad’s henchmen are in limited supply, and it’s pretty easy to keep track of roughly how many he has left because the same faces repeatedly show up throughout the chase.  Additionally, it’s easy to sympathize with the mostly one-note Murad, thanks to Šerbedžija’s dependably dedicated acting: he lost his son; why wouldn’t he want some resolution?  But he makes one too many villainous decisions to escape this film alive.  On the other hand, his followers are viciously devoted to torturing and killing Mills.  Marko (Murad’s son) must really have been the toast of Albania for these guys to be so convicted.

Like this year’s The Bourne Legacy, Taken 2 opens the possibility of a sequel, but does not promise, require, or guarantee it.  It’s a good action film with some subtlety and a fair attempt at character.  While it does include the unfortunate trope of non-American villains who could be any race to an American audience (just look at Šerbedžija, a Serbian actor who constantly plays Russian and Bulgarian characters), it doesn’t involve the obligatory sexual objectification of white women that was heavily featured in the original Taken, nor is Mills as much of a ruthless brute as he once was.  Nearly every bad vibe is gone, stripping the film down to a likeable action flick wisely contained in its own drama.  It’s not the highest film art of the year, but you don’t go into something like this expecting Rob Roy, do you?

Taken 2 (2012); written by Luc Besson; directed by Olivier Megaton; starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Jensson, and Rade Šerbedžija. 

Knight And Day

I’m the guy

I decided Tom Cruise and I were “okay” again after Mission: Impossible III, which shouted over its proverbial shoulder to acknowledge the true flair of the franchise while simultaneously letting Tom Cruise showcase his talents as an actor.  No matter your level of fright at his Scientology exploits, you cannot deny Cruise’s lasting appeal, natural dramatic prowess, and general likability in films.  When Valkyrie came along, despite its stellar cast and honest ambition, I wasn’t sure.  Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg?  Another Hitler thing?  Cruise has surely crossed a threshold across which we can never follow if this sort of film will be his norm from now on.  I’d rather spend time with Daniel Kaffee any day.

With Knight And Day, Cruise is allowed to be comfortable again.  Part romantic comedy, part actioner, part espionage thriller, there’s plenty of room to play around in James Mangold’s world.  Cruise stars as Roy Miller, a rogue CIA agent conveniently skilled in every situation that presents itself to him during his screen time, and Cameron Diaz appears alongside him as June Havens, an innocent car restorer who becomes involved in Miller’s absurd mission.

At the outset, the film presents itself as a rom-com and promises fun, starting with your run-of-the-mill Meet Cute and some flirty banter.  Early scenes involving Cruise and Diaz in a diner and on an airplane showcase the charm of the two leads.  Soon, however, “bad guys” attack.  Nearly every subsequent scene follows the same formula: charming build-up, satisfying wit, BOOM!  BANG!  RUN!  Cruise calmly kills off legions of armed villains under increasingly preposterous circumstances as Diaz screams, whines, looks good, and occasionally pops off a clever line.

It is, perhaps, the film’s nihilism and predictability that make it all the more charming.  From the first fight scene, during which Cruise kills the entire crew and passenger roster of an in-flight plane, the tongue-in-cheek tendencies of the film are evident.  The situation and its presentation skirt satire, and if not for Cruise and Diaz’s straight-faced performances, it might be full-blown farce.  The action scenes, as ridiculous as they are, seem fine in this world because Cruise remains the down-to-earth (if hopelessly brazen) eye around which the film’s storm spins.

Knight And Day falters when Cruise briefly goes away and we are asked to believe the convoluted espionage-thriller backstory the film previously  (and wisely) shoved aside by having Cruise sum things up with “Maybe it’s better if you don’t know” and “Those were bad guys; these are worse guys.”  Suddenly, however, we are expected to buy into an evil Hispanic maniac’s plot to capture a powerful MacGuffin (The Maltese Falcon…er, a strange battery, that is) which Miller happens to have.  The Lull Section of the film is your typical break in the adorable rom-com couple’s relationship while everything else in the story gets settled, but in this case, with long drags of silence and confusing “figure stuff out” scenes, it becomes a bore.  On the bright side, the film has a nice supporting cast, including Paul Dano and Viola Davis.  Maggie Grace even pops up a few times as June’s little sister, April.

Not clear about what it wants to be, Knight And Day lets the viewer decide what to take away from it.  If anything, Hollywood has finally gotten its fourth-wall-obliterating, self-conscious exercise in acknowledging its own conventions out of its system.  The formulaic, CG-drenched action pieces distract from the romance, and the cute, well-played romance scenes distract from the action.  In some ways, it’s two films in one, but in the end, even if Roy Miller is crazy, as many of the film’s characters claim, even if he believes he’s superman or superagent or even that humanity was born from ancient space volcanoes, you have to admit: he makes it work, and you want to watch him.

Knight And Day (2010); written by Patrick O’Neill; directed by James Mangold; starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz and Paul Dano.

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