Since Luc Besson stopped directing, he has become more than a veritable production factory. He has established his array of mediocre and indistinguishable French directors as minions to his every whim of entirely disposable and forgettable action nonsense. Their formulas are simple; minimal dialogue that can be easily uttered by the multinational cast in English. Acting skill is unimportant, athletic ability is. The more Eurotrashy you look, the further up the henchman food chain you go. If the story features Americans or other non-swarthy whites, find an excuse to get them to France, no matter how extraneous it may seem. Despite almost always taking place in Paris, even if the main character is a cop, the least amount of police presence and competence is required. This also limits the required extras on external sets and gets Besson under budget. Make no mistake that every one of these projects has all of his personal stamps, and that’s not limited to the obvious fetish for young, tall, skinny girls who look like boys.
Most of these movies aren’t even worth the effort to turn your brain off, there’s a low-rent cynical sameness about them, not helped by the scaled back formulas on display. The Taxi series (1-4) is one of the most egregious examples, when there isn’t a car chase on-screen, we are given the lamest possible slapstick and mugging for the camera. In fact, intentional humor is where Besson tends to go wrong, witness The Fifth Element, Transporter 3, Wasabi, amongst many others. Transporter 2 is a wonderful exception, because all of the absurd sequences and CGI incompetence add to the feeling of flying in a logic-free zone. Transporter 2’s insanity seemed like a combination of Besson’s indifference to tying up the story and the director (who has since moved onto the unfortunately safe The Incredible Hulk) trying to create a highlight reel to show off to the studios by assuring that each scene was more outrageous than the last, coherency and competence be damned.
This ingenuity that slips through Besson’s formula was evident in Pierre Morel’s District 13, which threw together high flying acrobatics disguised as fights and a lot of depressingly unimaginative attempts at Orwellian dystopia. It was unfortunate that the glum histrionics took over the second half of the movie.
Morel’s follow-up for Besson is Taken, a heavily contrived action vehicle for Liam Neeson, in Bourne mode, but with the backstory and lumbering body type of Seagal. The terrific TV trailer currently running featuring the scene where Neeson threatens his daughter’s kidnappers on the phone, establishes the premise quickly, but also means you can pretty much tune out the first thirty minutes. This includes Famke Janssen, wasted as the harpy ex-wife (Besson constantly casts name female actresses just so they can play the most thankless role possible, and quiver and cower in the background). Once Neeson gets to Paris to track down his daughter, the fights and violence are broken up in five minute intervals. It can’t be a coincidence how much the movie feels like a video game.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t work, the fights are quick and snappy, the broken bones and shootings well done (likely toned down for the PG-13 US version, Taken, like many a Besson project was released in Europe many months ago), there’s no humor intrusion, and Neeson makes a believable older and determined action hero who doesn’t waste time showing off. Plus the conclusion pits Neeson against a guy who looks like Jabba the Hutt.
While Taken can and should be mocked for being a half-baked and thrown together version of David Mamet’s superb Spartan (the best kidnap and rescue espionage movie ever), even throwing in a faintly developed white slavery to scary brown people sub-plot, it is a quick and painless kinetic exercise, guaranteed to be over in 90 minutes or less.