First his daughter was Taken. Then he and his wife gets Taken 2. Now something was Tak3n from him again. How far can you stretch a franchise that has a really simple premise, and that very simplicity was the reason the original Taken was so great in the first place? Theoretically, sequels offer the chance to expand on the premise established in the original film, but there wasn’t much to build on.
[Spoiler scope: Taken and Taken 2 plots will be discussed. No spoilers for Taken 3 except for things revealed in the trailer.]
The aforementioned “simple” premise of Taken is this: Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, with a “particular set of skills” who tries to save his kidnapped daughter. On the surface, this premise sounds fairly generic and unoriginal. What sets Taken apart from a million other action thrillers is the driving force behind the plot.
In particular, the premise is driven a very indulgent fantasy — one where a father violently pummel through the criminal underworld of Paris like an angry bull to save his daughter. The scenes where he makes some morally questionable acts (like shooting a police inspector’s wife) just serves to reinforce the idea of Mills as an unstoppable, uncompromising machine. His love for his daughter is so absolute and unconditional that it overpowers all sense of rationality and morality. Completely single-minded in his goal, he cannot be reasoned or bargained with. His paternal instincts has basically made him a Terminator. (In fact, in the production notes director Oliver Megaton himself describes Mills in the original film as a “robot with one through line — to save his daughter”.) The fact that he is a former spy is not important other than to provide Mills with a “particular set of skills” that enable his rampage through the city.
Taken 2 is widely considered as a weaker rehash of the first. The sequel did not add much other than an attempt to repeat the surface-level premise of the first. Most importantly it lacked some of the primal driving force. Unlike the first, Taken 2 did not show how a moment of crisis turns his unconditional love into a raging killing machine. Sure, the plot involves the kidnapping of his wife. But it somehow lacked the intensity and ferocity of the first. The magic seems to be lost here. The action scenes are also weaker and badly edited compared to the first. The new characters and villains aren’t very interesting, and there was very little mythology or world-building to expand on. (On the other hand, other movies like John Wick has established a fascinating world of assassins and their hotels and internal currency of gold coins. That would be interesting to explore in a sequel.)
Presumably Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen know this when writing Taken 3, for in this movie they shifted the focus into a man-on-the-run storyline. This time no one gets kidnapped, and the thing that gets “taken” is Lenore’s life. Bryan has become the prime suspect of Lenore’s murder and must evade the cops while trying to investigate the murder and find the real killer.
On paper, shifting to a different plot style might seem a logical approach. But it comes at the expense of contradicting the spirit of the first two films. For a man-on-the-run story to be interesting, we need to feel that the protagonist is vulnerable, or at some risk of being outmaneuvered by the police. But the character of Bryan Mills was established to be an unstoppable machine, it is hard to believe that he was in any risk of being captured. There was very little tension in Taken 3. He was constantly shown escaping the police effortlessly, even in situations we’d normally think are inescapable.
The fact that the police are so incompetent in comparison to Mills makes the casting of Forest Whitaker a wasted opportunity. Whitaker is an Oscar-winning actor, and having him play the lead detective chasing Liam Neeson (also an Oscar winner) would be a golden opportunity for a tense scene of them facing off, either in physical or verbal sparring. They were in a perfect position to have their own version of the diner scene in Heat. Whitaker’s character could have been made an equal to Mills, giving him a formidable challenge and we would see what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. If they wanted the third sequel to raise the stakes, that would be it! But instead they let Mills play the police like a violin. He was in no danger from the police at any time.
Alas, the story did not focus on Whitaker, opting instead to be more interested in the mystery behind Lenore’s murder, which many reviews agree to be both predictable and uninteresting.
Speaking of action, it was pretty bad as well. The action mostly consists of the shaky cams and the excessive cuts where it was hard to tell what’s going on. It is perhaps highly probable that the cuts were there to hide Neeson’s stunt double, but some are strangely unnecessary. For instance a simple shot of an exploding car has four or five different cuts, jumping to various angles when it was sufficient to just stick to one or two cuts. The result is all the action scenes were incomprehensible and uninteresting. Coupled with the fact that there was no tension built from the story, everything just falls flat. Director Oliver Megaton himself said in the production notes:
The more action you have, the more you have to prepare the audience. Especially for those huge action sequences. So you have to build your characters in another way. And the more danger you subject thecharacter to, the more you have to set up the character right from the start. It’s tricky because things keep snowballing. And that spiraling pace is even built into the characters’ emotional and human development.
Moving forward, let’s consider what would we want from a hypothetical T4ken, if they ever decide to make a fourth one? Many of the negative reviews seem to agree that since Taken 3 has gotten so bad, they should stop making any more. I just think they should stop making *bad* Taken movies. I still believe in some good stuff remains to be extracted from the premise.
The obvious choice would be a prequel. Cast someone to play a young Bryan Mills to explore his adventures in the Cold War-era 80s? Perhaps Liam Hemsworth? (It only popped into my mind because it’s another Liam.) Of course, we’d want the original star to draw the audience back. So maybe the story cold be framed by present-day Bryan Mills being interrogated or interviewed. Thus Liam Neeson narrates his events in the 80s played by the younger actor. We let the movie jump between the 80s and the present day Neeson interrogation, perhaps like in True Detective or Spy Game.
Most importantly, a hypothetical fourth movie needs to capture the same essence of the original movie. In particular the idea that an unstoppable-killing-machine Mills is driven by some fundamental primal instinct that the audience can empathize with. The first Taken works because the driving force behind his actions was his love for his daughter. It was so resonant such that if he ever commits acts that are unacceptable or questionable, we somehow went along with it because we empathized with his motivations.
What sort of event that could act as a catalyst that drives a young Bryan Mills? The obvious answer would be a kidnapped or murdered lover. But that is lazy, clichéd writing that does a disservice to representations of female characters in cinema. John Wick managed to avoid this trope by having Wick avenge a puppy. We could give something important and precious to Mills for him to chase or avenge. Maybe a mentor figure, or brother? Perhaps let him avenge a fallen soldier. However, we can be sure of one thing. The McGuffin cannot simply be some espionage related object like a blueprint of a bomb, as that would lack a deep emotional connection to Mills that sets Taken apart from all other generic action thrillers.
Taken 3 is slightly better than the second, not as good as the first. The action scenes are incomprehensible, but less silly in comparison to the second one. The story gets convoluted in the end, and we might not care much what happens despite the plot twists. Despite being underused, it was nice to see Forest Whitaker return to a role similar to what he did in The Shield. That dude was born to play a cop.
Lay of the land
SchmoesKnow: The three reviewers gave it 2.5/5, 2.75/5 and 2.4/5 Schmoes
Jeremy Jahns: You’ll forget it in [t-1] days, “It’s a shittier version of the fugitive.”
Badassdigest on the action scene editing: “This is one of the worst cases of Chaos Cinema I’ve seen in a while. Megaton utilizes a megaton of edits for every little thing that happens in his actions scenes, and it’s impossible to know what’s going on.”
IMDB rating: 6.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 12%