Friday, 5 October 2012

Review: TAKEN 2

Unlike many action film sequels, Taken 2’s strongest card is that it isn’t a case of, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” Bryan Mills’ (Liam Neeson) role in this is comes as a direct result of his jaunt to Paris in 2008 and more specifically as a result of the disposable goons he mercilessly killed in order to save his daughter. Turns out said goons had powerful families who now seek to avenge their deaths.
That’s not to say there isn’t a degree of contrivance involved in bringing all parties together in another foreign city. Moving from Paris to Istanbul this time, it mildly subverts expectations by making Mills’ daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) less of a victim and more instrumental this time around, all the while managing to crowbar in scenes reminiscent of the most popular from the original.
So we get the phonecall as he calmly talks his daughter through the situation. We get the threats to his assailants as he delivers his intention to kill them. We get the storming of dilapidated residences filled with leather jacketed heavies. It does seem forced but it makes sense he’d employ similar tactics. These are aspects of his character and his methods in the same way that John McClane might crack wise after a fumbled dispatch or John Rambo might grunt while stealthily slitting someone’s throat.

It’s easy to forget that his role in Taken was the one that reinvented Liam Neeson to an extent. For an audience used to seeing him in dramas or as noble mentors, it was a genuine shock to see him coldly rampaging across Paris. By nature of its sequel status we don’t have that same luxury here. We know exactly what Mills can do and so all the film can do is try to top what we’ve already seen by raising the stakes.
By bringing along his estranged wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and having her in peril, it adds another layer. Her character doesn’t add much but the effect her inclusion has is efficient. Rather than wading into the situation with literal guns blazing as he did last time, the impetus here is getting out of it and rueing his involvement in the first place.
The film’s biggest problem lies in the handling of the action scenes. In chasing a younger demographic the fight scenes have lost any sense of weight. The brutality is replaced by a series of incomprehensible fight scenes and logical leaps that render them near-worthless. The sound mix is so softened and the edits are so rapid that all you see are flailing limbs and aftermath with bone-snapping cracks replaced by light whumps that sound like pillows landing.
All of the visceral no-nonsense joy is sapped. The car chases across crowded Istanbul bazaars and narrow streets fare better but even those feel dampened by the fact that they’re a staple of the genre. Rade Sherbedgia’s chief villain is deftly handled in spite of awkwardly literal dialogue but for a film which focuses on the personalisation of the villains as a key plot point, each of the rest of them are nonentities only there to wave guns and serve as convenient action beats.
Like the first, the scenes of Mills in normality are faintly laughable with echoes of his daughter’s embarrassingly false teeny pop idol obsession and U2-following Euro tour of yore. An ill advised subplot about Kim’s first boyfriend is played strictly for laughs and veers into parody as Neeson plays protective father for comic effect. Kim’s convenient ambition is now passing a driving test which unsurprisingly comes into play as she uses it as a means to bond with her father in both LA and when at risk.
At more than one point in the film it borrows tracks from the soundtrack to Drive. An odd choice with such a lauded film so fresh in the memory but it has to be assumed that using Chromatics’ Tick Of The Clock in exactly the same context as Nicolas Winding Refn’s film has to be an obvious homage rather than rip off. However it does raise the question of exactly what tone the filmmakers are aiming for.
Softer than the first instalment in themes and action and with unexpected comedic elements weaved throughout, it never quite hits the same highs as the singular Taken. While the plot must be applauded on some level for providing a logical response to previous incidents, it’s a generally satisfying sequel rather than equal.


Tuesday, 2 October 2012


It comes down to more than just this but you know when one small thing in a film causes it to instantly lose you? That.

Set in a Pittsburgh of indeterminate year, the film sets up our teenage misfit protagonists as musos; outsiders whose lives are punctuated by key songs that define moments. They listen to Nick Drake and use obscure songs by The Smiths as tonal shorthand for us to realise how deep they are. They make wilfully clued-in mixtapes and comment about how great it is when Dexys Midnight Runners get played at a lame disco. These kids, these precociously switched-on lyrical brats, hear Heroes by David Bowie on a magical car journey and none of them know what it is.
Is their non-recognition them being achingly hip and oh-so arch? Acknowledging the fact that it’s among the best known songs by an instantly recognisable artist and scoffing at how pointedly it underscores their position? They must know the song, right? Nope. Turns out they don't and it becomes a poignant plot point that they uncover the obscure recording artist behind this little heard track.
It might seem like a small point but it encapsulates the problems of the film. It’s so focused on what looks or sounds cool within a scene that it forgets whether or not it distracts from what matters.
So long is spent on establishing the outsider status of our heroes that they make up for in affectations what they lose in characterisation. You've got Ezra Miller's acid-tongued, gay Patrick (who expresses his sexuality through on-stage, dragged up sing-alongs of The Rocky Horror Picture Show); Emma Watson's surface level, seemingly together Sam who is actually a whole mess of turbulence underneath; and central character Charlie, played by Logan Lerman, who we're informed has a history of tragedy in both his family and social life and has previously suffered a breakdown.
It’s a potent mix for a film with this demographic and Miller and Lerman’s performances are particularly good. A supporting cast, which includes Paul Rudd as a warmly influential teacher and Pittsburgh local hero Tom Savini, help scatter the film with individual charming scenes but never really help coax it onwards. Ultimately the teenage dilemmas which drive the film lack sufficient exploration beyond soap opera arcs and Emma Watson is distractingly miscast. Never able to convince that her character has an ounce of the history she professes, she serves little dramatic purpose beyond romantic foil for Charlie.
When the plot seems torn between whether it’s a romantic drama or psychological study of repressed memories, each tender melodrama is an unwelcome interlude. Both strands work well in isolation but rarely form a workable symbiosis.
It's in the age difference of three years between Charlie and his cohorts that shades of This Is England start to appear. It's not overt but there’s almost the sense of an Americanised retelling; this youngster who starts to find his identity through hanging out with older peers and discovers a sense of belonging through the world of music, literature and drugs they introduce him to. It never strays into the same darker areas as This Is England but it’s riddled with many of the same touch points – even down to our hero’s relationship with the weird, shaven-headed older girl.
It’s undoubtedly affecting at times in spite of its multiple flaws and while attacking the themes with an occasional dearth of finesse, there is some profundity in there. As Patrick states in one scene, his life is like an “afterschool special”. It’s fine to acknowledge that but it doesn’t excuse the fact that the film has been written in such a way.
Having harped on about the use of music in the film it seems churlish to point out that the jukebox soundtrack is actually very good and the song selection perfectly balances out the slightly wistful cinematography.
We open with a countdown and the film ends accordingly; time has passed and lives have changed but the rigidity of that time period make those life changing events appear glossed over in pursuit of a framework. When so much time is devoted to letting us know just how much our heroes stand out from the crowd, it’s just not clear exactly what the perks of being a wallflower are.