Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Not taken in

I went to see the movie, Taken 2, on the weekend and was struck by how ho-hum it all was. The first of these films, Taken, was one of those thrillers whose best moments had a kinetic energy that seemed to run up through the theatre floor and into your seat. But it was a one idea film which didn't need to become a franchise.

When you take away all the noise and explosions and flick-knife cutting between scenes, the real film is actually pretty static. Even the main actors and actresses seemed bored, and almost annoyed at having to do this. 

Even the action sequences in the sequel have a been there/done that feel to them. I don't think much new has been done with car chase sequences since The French Connection in 1971. 

It's difficult to get away from storytelling fundamentals, no matter what the genre.

  • effective, individualized characterisation
  • a meaningful context, beyond the stereotypical
  • a plot that has surprises (when you first see them) that make story sense in the wider context
  • believability
  • an attempt at an emotional core which has poignancy, not syrup

The villains in this film (Islamic, as has been the fashion since 9/11) are all stereotyped, and come and go so quickly that we never get a sense of them as being individualized. They have no inner lives that are hinted at on screen, they are just ciphers, balls of typecast anger.

Even the hero's family are merely functional. Liam Neeson's (Bryan in the film) wife, Lenore, is underwritten, a shame and a nagging and worrying recurring facet of many action films. She just seems to be there to suffer, to act as revenge motivation. The daughter, Kim, is given more space and scope, but segues between classic American young beauty and grenade carrying proto-marine.

As for context, there was a classic revenge narrative, which is true enough, but still done to death. The first few minutes show the villains at a funeral, which both connects to the background of the first film and sets up their motivations in this one. But it's too easy.

One of the reasons why the Bourne trilogy of thrillers was so effective was that amid all the action it contained mystery. Who was Jason Bourne, really? Who had wiped his memory? Who was behind the attempts in the present to shut him down and kill him? So the film worked on an intellectual level, not just a physical one. And Matt Damon's acting, mixing vulnerability and confusion with his super action powers, gave the films layers of nuance. They had an emotional and a psychological core.

Taken 2, has no real emotional core, beyond the classic, you kidnapped my family plot. It has no psychological dimension at all. The heroes are all good, the villains are all bad. There is no ambiguity, no self-questioning of motives or allotted roles, no subtextual conflicts bubbling away. Everything is derived and played out on the surface. So because the audience isn't asked to think or feel, the quick change editing goes into overdrive to compensate.

It even fails in believability. The villains don't do a thorough search to find the hero's hidden phone, they leave him alone with his wife, giving him time to escape and save her.  

I also find it a very questionable thread in American movies where ex CIA agents are presented as heroes, or at the very least - ordinary guys. It's a serious liberty with  the truth to get away with either of those lines.

It's tempting to think that the film's only real purposes are to sell popcorn and get us angrier at anyone who prays to Allah.The great thrillers, Bourne, Bullit, The French Connection 1 and 2, Terminator 2 (Judgement Day) work on more than one level, and at their best get us to question our own perspectives of good and evil, question our own motivations and justifications.
Action thrillers have their place, and at their best, they can invigorate and render the audience uncomfortable, as well as thrilled. At their worst they're just smoke and noise.


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