I doubt anyone involved in the original Taken seven years ago expected it to become the imitation-spawning, pop-culture touchstone that it did. It didn’t so much launch a specific character but the whole concept of Liam Neeson as an unlikely action star, a role he’s wholeheartedly embraced in the years since. Even given producer/writer Luc Besson’s track record, I doubt Taken was really intended to start a franchise either. When promoting the lacklustre first sequel Taken 2, Neeson notably said that there wouldn’t be a third movie as he saw no reason for it. The producers thought differently after Taken 2 made even more money than the first. According to reports, Neeson received a salary close to the first film’s entire budget to return one last time, something he amusingly also only agreed to on the condition that no-one be taken in the film.
Having seen Taken 3, I can confirm that indeed no-one gets taken during it, and to be fair, it is trying to shake-up the easily repeatable formula of the series, the trouble is that it’s just not trying very hard.
Neeson’s ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills appears to be living a reasonably enjoyable life again, he has a good relationship with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and now grown-up daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). He turns down an offer from his fellow secret agent friends to take on a new job, happy to just play golf it seems, naturally, this isn’t going to last.
While Taken 3 doesn’t opt for the familiar kidnap plot, it sadly replaces it with an even more tiresome troupe; killing off the wife. Now there is at least some variation here; she’s his ex-wife, they haven’t got back together (though look to be headed in that direction) and more importantly, it’s not just a basic revenge story. The bad guys have cleverly set-up Lenore’s murder to make it seem as if Mills committed it. He now must evade the law, track down the real culprits, and (of course) make sure they don’t go after his daughter next. It doesn’t make the film’s treatment of Janssen any better, but there’s at least a bit of effort to the story.
Another more positive aspect to the film is in Neeson’s foil; an FBI agent named Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker). Dotzler is commendably smart for a movie agent in his position; he quickly deduces what kind of man he is dealing with and what Mills is capable of. Nearly every step of the way, he works out how Mills is getting past them and planting red herrings, sparing us numerous scenes of the bumbling cops chasing dead ends. The bad guys on the other hand are just generic Russian mobster types.
In another example of the ‘different yet still completely unoriginal’ approach, this film is set entirely in Los Angeles. The plot moves along fairly quickly but the writing often feels rushed and lazy – such as in an awful early scene intended to demonstrate Mills’ well-intentioned but out-of-touch fatherly pursuits when he buys Kim a giant stuffed panda for her birthday.
There’s a big third act plot twist that mishandled enough by returning director Olivier Megaton that I wasn’t entirely sure the film was telling us what I thought it was until a few scenes later. Megaton’s direction of the action scenes is serviceable in the early escape scenes but more unremarkable in the later shootouts, typically trimmed to suit the bloodless PG-13 sensibilities. (Also, is Dougray Scott’s Stuart the same Stuart that was played by Xander Berkeley in the original or a new character with the same name? I was wondering this for a while when watching the film)
Unfortunately, the novelty of seeing Liam Neeson as a badass action hero has worn off now, and that was a key part of Taken’s initial charm. He’s fine, but does appear to be coasting a bit now he’s eased into this persona. Again we’re hearing that this is to be the last Taken movie, we’ll have to wait and see if they mean it this time. I do think that Besson misunderstood the appeal of the first movie for these sequels. If he’d just sent Neeson and his ‘particular set of skills’ off on another, completely separate mission somewhere else in the world they might have turned out fine, but he feels the need to shoehorn his family into the plot each time, and by now he’s exhausted his options.