Like 2008’s Taken and 2012’s Taken 2 before it, Taken 3’s meat-and-potatoes approach to filming action is about as basic as action filmmaking can be: no fancy pants martial arts tussles, no daring stunts, no gimmicks. There’s only growling, punching, and shooting, served upon a bed of collateral damage and suffused with car chases. Thus, a no-frills film deserves a no-frills review, so without beating around the bush or getting poetic, let’s make one thing clear: Taken 3 isn’t a good movie. Against all logic, it isn’t a bad movie, either. Instead, it’s so casual and indifferent to itself it lapses into something altogether appalling.
A brief recap, for those who missed the preceding two entries in this unnecessary trilogy: seven years ago, sex traffickers kidnapped retired CIA superman Bryan Mills’ (Liam Neeson) daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Bryan used his very particular set of skills to ice a bunch of international bad bros and save his kid, as well as the proverbial day. Four years ago, another slew of international bad guys, none of whom watched the first film, snatch Bryan’s ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), which means they all wind up dead too. Now, with Taken 3, Olivier Megaton, back after directing Taken 2, has upped the ante without taking anybody—or at least without abducting anyone. Très sneaky.
Spoilers, perhaps, but if you’ve seen the trailers or read a synopsis, you probably know that Taken 3 begins by shuffling Lenore off her mortal coil. Slightly more permanent than a simple shanghai-ing, so score one for Megaton, I guess. Bryan becomes the chief suspect in Lenore’s murder, which burdens him not only with the task of finding out who killed her and why, but also evading dogged veteran LAPD Inspector Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker). Eventually, inexplicably, Russian thugs led by Sam Spruell enter into the picture to simplify things by providing a staple villain for our hero to knock off. It’s not much of a twist on formula, but it’s enough to keep the Taken blueprint from becoming stagnant and dull—in theory.
But it’s a theory in the same way that Obama’s plan to spread Ebola across the U.S. to steal American citizens’ guns is a theory. Taken 3 ultimately gains nothing by going all The Fugitive on its audience; it just grows more cacophonous, stacking predictability upon convenience at every available juncture. Bryan Mills isn’t exactly an Everyman character, but Megaton no longer appears concerned with tension or danger. You can’t ram Bryan off the road with an SUV and put a dent in him; you can’t explode a police car in an elevator shaft and leave a scorch mark on him; and you can’t go weapons-free and pierce him with a single bullet. He’s two steps ahead of Dotzler and a hundred ahead of the Grim Reaper. After a point, the limitless ways in which Taken 3 poo-poos storytelling fundamentals, like “stakes”, become tiresome.
The best proof of this may be Neeson himself. Just over sixty but sporting the vigor and looks of a man in his 40s, Neeson looks exhausted and worn out for the first time in his latter-day career shift to “high-octane badass.” He’s a veteran actor, the kind of grizzled presence who can make almost any harebrained action flick sound like it’s worth the trip to the multiplex, and here his experience shows in his obvious boredom. Neeson comes alive in his few scenes with Grace and Whitaker; there are sparks in these moments, but they’re snuffed out quickly. It’s a necessary function of the plot—being on the run precludes much meaningful interaction with them—but maybe Neeson’s own disinterest is as good a sign of the plot’s tepidness as any. Taken 3 is absolutely beneath his talents.
Yet amazingly, miraculously, against all odds, the film engages, if only just and only after he gets around to solving the central mystery surrounding Lenore’s death. Most likely this means we’ll be staring down the barrel of another film (title suggestion: Taken 4: Ten Dollars) in the not too distant future. Maybe Fox will find someone with vision and verve to direct that film and let Megaton go about his business elsewhere, cobbling together incoherent set pieces that don’t give us a reason to care. On the other hand, maybe not. But what’s certain is that Neeson, one of the unexpectedly essential action stars of the day, has outgrown this franchise by several leagues. Like the rest of us, he’s better off moving on.
Director: Olivier Megaton
Writer: Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen
Starring: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Forest Whitaker, Maggie Grace, Sam Spruell, Dougray Scott
Release Date: Jan. 9th, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.