When the first Taken film arrived on the scene, it presented a curious and interesting premise: what if an action movie could be led by an Academy Award-nominated actor with the gravitas of Liam Neeson? Taken presented us with a more weathered type of hero, one with close familial ties, and a soft spot for his beloved daughter, whom he couldn’t quite understand. Was the premise perfect? No, far from it. For starters, it infantilized said daughter, who was the focal point of Bryan’s search. It also presented some improbable circumstances surrounding the rescue. Nevertheless, Taken got by on charm, and on the serious acting chops of its leading man.
After the first film became an unexpected success, plans for a sequel were immediately put underway. Taken 2 advanced the familial narrative of the first film, as Bryan became ever closer to his ex-wife and his daughter. For her part, Maggie Grace’s Kim gained new-found agency as Bryan’s daughter in Taken 2, clearly having inherited/learned some of her father’s gumption, and assisting her father in his mission.
The reason I bring up the previous installments of the Taken series is that the new film shatters their narrative and their mold. It is a bold decision to depart from a formula, in this case “Person X is kidnapped, and Person Y goes on a dangerous, violent search through the criminal underworld of an exotic city in order to find them.” In Taken 3, most of the action takes place domestically, and the plot centers on a murder instead of a kidnapping. Furthermore, the third installment of the series breaks with the overtures of a reunified family that were set up in the previous films. You can’t reunite a family if one of the members is dead.
The casting is good, particularly the returning players, but the actors are struggling against increasingly bad material. Daughter Kim is once again reduced to a victim of circumstance, walking back the progress that the character had made in the previous film. By choosing to kill her mother Lenore (played by the wonderful Famke Janssen), the writers fail to deliver on the family narrative that was promised in the first two films. As for the new cast-members, it’s a mixed bag. Forest Whitaker is absolutely wasted as the agent in charge of capturing Bryan. His character exists only to be thwarted. Their interplay fails to achieve the dramatic tension of Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, who were playing characters in a similar situation. Sam Spruell is repellant as the villain of the film, but not in a way that is compelling. We are counting the minutes to his death, not because we’re invested in Bryan’s mission, but because Spruell is so very annoying. There is no nuance to be found in either his nor Whitaker’s performances. The only positive decision was to cast Dougray Scott as Stuart, Kim’s step-dad and Lenore’s husband. Scott replaces the equally talented Xander Berkeley, who played Stuart in the first film. Scott does his best with the material, and his talent is considerable, but even he can’t salvage the RADICAL changes in the writing of the character.
The writing is Taken 3‘s most fateful flaw. As someone who enjoys action films, even at their most implausible, I could not get behind the developments of this movie. Characters were written in ways that were not only contrary to their established personalities, but even contrary to their best interests. They make stupid decisions that endanger their lives and the lives of their loved ones. I also wonder whether a person could follow the events of Taken 3 without having watched the previous installments. Technically, it stands on its own. What I don’t doubt is that new audience members won’t care.
If, like me, you’re a completist, you can watch Taken 3 when it premieres on HBO (and all HBO platforms) on October 17th. Check the tease.