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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

“We all know how humans work. They’re so predictable.”

In what could be argued as being the first popcorn fuelled summer blockbuster of the year – at least the first that doesn’t have a Marvel or DC title card – Valerian seemed doomed to fail from the second it opened in the US to seemingly poor reviews. Undeterred, we sent Brooker off to see if Luc Besson’s latest is as bad as everyone seems to think.

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Taken 3

A predictable but acceptable plot, with the always reliable modern action film icon Neeson performing well enough, belied by some dodgy direction decisions and insufferable action set pieces.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

taken 3 2Does anyone still remember 2012? It wasn’t that long ago. Back when times were simpler. Well, they were simpler for me anyway. Back then, James was still the site editor and I was just a lowly Brummie who accidentally joined his fledgling film entertainment podcast after covering for an incapacitated Gerry.

Nevertheless, it also happened to be around August of that year that I watched the original Taken film for the first time, almost two months prior to the release of its sequel. Like a lot of other people, I too loved it, as much of a latecomer as I was. As a throwback to classic Stallone-era action thrillers with its outright evil bad guy, cannon fodder in every scene and an escalating sense of dread, it was immensely entertaining. Not only that, but the European location, fast pace, brutal execution scenes and anti-hero character of Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), a former CIA Agent hunting down the nasty non-American’s in Paris who’ve taken his daughter (Maggie Grace), it also meant it was the contemporary thriller for a new generation. It left behind the steroid-enhanced pectorals and biceps of the 80’s, the hair gel and smirking faces of the 90’s, and went instead for simply an ordinary looking (yet highly skilled) father tracking down his abducted daughter.

Each decade has its own action movies that defines it. Whether through the real blossoming of the genre in the 60’s in Where Eagles Dare, or a James Cameron blockbuster such as True Lies in the 90’s. There’s always at least one movie that seems recognisably “of its time”, yet still produces enormous amounts of satisfaction even today. I believe that the genre during the 2000’s is defined by three movies. Most notably, The Bourne Identity, Casino Royale and Taken. Not necessarily my favourites, but they’re the Die Hard‘s of their decade; the Rambo‘s of their time. At a push, in the first half of this decade, I suppose you could state that the defining action films so far would probably be The Raid and/or the comic book adventure actioners like Avengers Assemble; though there’s still plenty of time left for someone to pull a new classic out of the bag! Maybe this will finally be the decade that belongs to Van Damme? I can but hope.

As for Taken‘s sequels, they’re not quite so iconic or game changing. I’m not going to discuss Taken 2 in great detail. James made a stance back in 2012, and it seems only fair to continue to honour it. However, Taken 3 (or Tak3n as it is called by people trying to save a couple of characters in their Tweets) is fair game as far as I’m concerned.

It’s the first in the franchise to be set entirely in the USA. Immediately, that is cause for some concern. Part of what made Taken so distinguishable was that overriding Luc Besson European influence. The plot to Tak3n sees Bryan set up for the murder of his ex-wife. Using his very particular skills acquired over a long career, he is on the run from the law (led by Forest Whitaker making his debut in the series) whilst trying to get the person responsible… before they get to his daughter!

To say the previous film was great would be a lie. It isn’t. At all. The PG-13 (12A) rating held back on some of the violence and bad language, but it still had a grim ferocity underlining it. Murder was committed not in the name of justice, but revenge; and you were still somehow rooting for the guy doing it. The problem I had is that although the severity may not be as toned down as the majority of 12A movies, in most cases the more extreme moments are implied or happen off screen (which somehow makes it more acceptable to younger audiences?)

With Taken 3, this is still a problem. It too is a 12A in order to reach as wide an audience as possible, despite not actually changing the message of the film. It just has no blood and very little swearing, which suddenly means it’s fine for those under 12 to watch. Odd that, isn’t it? Best not to corrupt their mind with too many “fuck”‘s or “shit”‘s, eh? But let’s have this guy shoot someone in the face, that’s all dandy.

Sorry, went off on a bit of a tangent then. Anyway, it’s the use of jump-cuts during the action sequences that is absolutely horrendous to look at rather than the level of violence. It’s a bloody action film that, first of all, hides most of the action. If that’s not bad enough, the relentless jump-cutting during absolutely everything intended to be thrilling does little more than induce fits of nausea. I counted along with the more elaborate action scenes to see how long each shot was on screen for before it flicked to the next. Literally (literally literally, not figuratively literally) one second per shot. Whether it was Bryan first evading the police after finding Leonore’s (Famke Janssen) lifeless body in his apartment, or chasing down an aeroplane in a Porsche, there was barely any time to even register what you were seeing, nevermind make sense of it all. Bourne is often credited with originating this in the modern actioner. As per a discussion I had on Twitter recently, the word “frenetic” used to describe “a mess” instead of inferring “energy” in a scene can probably be attributed to the way the swarm of Doug Liman/Paul Greengrass copycats failed to emulate the Bourne films. But this really is a mess. Director Olivier Megaton apparently doesn’t even like action movies, yet was convinced to direct the series because he was told he was good at shooting them. Whoever told him that needs shooting.

That’s not to say the the film is entirely bad. The plot is quite a simple one, but then that’s always worked in Taken‘s favour. It’s an action-come-revenge thriller series. It has a few twists and reveals, a change of character here, an unexpected death there. It’s just that of the three so far, this is the most predictable. I don’t care what you think, nobody could’ve predicted using grenades as an impromptu sat-nav in Taken 2.

It’s not even the characters that let it down; Forest Whitaker’s introduction and dodgy police work was absolutely fine, all things considered. As were all of Neeson’s former CIA buddies, come to mention it, who I personally would’ve liked to have seen more of. Sure, the baddies are slightly generic, with their faux non-specific Eastern European accents, but they more than fulfill their role in the plot.

Liam Neeson is always watchable in these films (when you can see him in between the psychedelic jump cuts, that is). Whether it’s Unknown, The Grey or last year’s Non-Stop and A Walk Among the Tombstones, 7 or 8 years ago it would seem bizarre to say it, but he is now the archetypal modern action hero and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a good thing. It’s just a shame that Taken 3 is not a better platform for him to perform in.

The end of the film does suggest a Taken 4 (or T4ken) and that should be no surprise to anyone. The runaway success of the original, initially thought to be little more than a DVD-earner, suggests they will continue to make these movies until Neeson quits or Besson stops making a profit on them. With a better director, an improved script and (dare I say it) an 18 rating, there is still potential left in the series. Somewhere. Probably.

Taken 3 is in cinemas right now and you can hear Owen talk about it on the next episode of the Failed Critics podcast.