Though its creative team is mostly European, and its setting and target audience are North American, the phrase that best encapsulates the experience of watching Taken 3 has a more Eastern association: death by a thousand cuts. Though only a single blade makes an appearance in the film, and its use as an instrument of violence is kept safely off-screen, it’s the haphazard slicing and dicing of the filmmakers that turns a potentially harmless trifle into indigestible confetti.
The sheer shoddiness of Taken 3 demands acknowledgement. Yes, on the surface, this is just another Liam Neeson action vehicle, wherein the 62 year-old actor runs, jumps, and beats the tar out of baddies half his size and age. A film can be judged by how well it achieves the goals it sets for itself, and the success of 2008’s Taken had a lot to do with how capably it, and director Pierre Morel cleared the low-bar of expectations. But incoherence is a cardinal sin of even the most bottom-feeding of action films; a headache-inducing script and poor acting can be numbed by the visceral sights and sounds of pyrotechnic mayhem, but only so long as they’re done right.
The sea change of quality over the course of Taken through Taken 3 owes less to novelty than it does authorial talent. Holding onto the director’s chair after Round 2 is Olivier Megaton, whose work with Taken 3 caps off a franchise downward trajectory so steep that returning to the original should require a lift ticket. Whereas Taken 2 was a hamstrung bore for confining the action to one location for too long, Taken 3 gives Megaton the tools and funds to stage a non-stop, multi-day chase through Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the results prove to be about as fun and fluid as being stuck in actual L.A. traffic.
Neeson is increasingly hard to buy as Bryan Mills, the ex-Special Forces, ex-CIA specialist with an ex-wife (Famke Janssen) and current daughter (Maggie Grace). That the Oscar-nominated actor can pretend to be a killing machine isn’t the issue, as his imposing stature is what helped sell Taken, and the ensuing Nees-Onslaught of action films. It’s everything else about the Mills character that’s impossible to believe; where Taken 2 asked us to accept that Neeson, as Mills, would ever drink a milkshake, or bro-out with the boys and talk basketball, Taken 3 adds “talking to a stuffed panda,” and “repeatedly using the word “bagel”” to the list of indignities suffered by the face and voice of weary authority.
On its own, Neeson’s lacking credibility as just an average, all-American father with a certain set of skills is but a quibble, but it’s a signpost for the complete lack of effort put into Taken 3 on all levels. The only novel element for this third go-round is that it’s a life, not a person, that’s been taken. Mills is framed for the murder of his ex-wife, and has to follow the paper trail back to the killers, while Forest Whitaker and an interchangeable team of moustachioed police-types try to bring him in. That Whittaker can’t decide on which affectation to give his umpteenth turn as a taskforce leader just gives further evidence to how comfortable with their shtick all parties involved must have been.
The best that can be said of Taken 3 is that it plays like a rush-job. Whereas the budget might have been to blame for Taken 2’s bottle approach to thrill delivery, the money (and product placement) pumped into its sequel is all very much on screen. Most scenes play like a first take, as Megaton fidgets with the camera nervously during dialogue scenes, never settling on a composition when he knows he can just jump to another seconds later. Perhaps with more time, scenes could have been staged with more clarity, and the fight sequences could have been recorded so as to give the impression that the actors actually learned some choreography.
But “perhaps” means very little when you’re in the middle of a 110-minute film that’s so restlessly edited, it makes Bourne look like Birdman. Megaton treats each shot like a live grenade, fearing he’ll die should he hold it for more than 2 seconds. This facilitates some disastrously memorable setpieces, with the most incomprehensible foot chase in recent years (it takes no less than 6 shots to show Mills jumping out of a window) being followed shortly by a car chase that treats spatial context with contempt instead of respect.
It’s that missing element that makes Taken 3 truly galling, the utter lack of respect it shows for your time, your money, and your intelligence. As Mills charges from brawl to shootout, the film grows increasingly indifferent to demonstrating how he accomplishes his death-defying feats. With even a hint of effort, Taken 3 would merit discussion for its apex achievement in the “Divorced Dad’s Revenge” fantasy genre, when our hero waterboards his ex’s new husband that’s involved with (who else?) Russian mobsters. But it doesn’t deserve your scorn, because you shouldn’t give it the time of day to begin with. Taken 3 is a lazy, inept, and insulting excuse for an action movie, a film so clearly rushed into theatres that it deserves to be just as quickly taken out of them.
Taken 3 makes clear that the only place left for this franchise to be taken is out back, and put out of its misery.