Of all the pit stops on Liam Neeson’s strange journey from intense, gravelly-voiced thesp to hulking action star, the Taken franchise is undoubtedly the most recognisable. Playing imposing former spy Bryan Mills, a man possessing a "very particular set of skills," Neeson’s physicality and po-faced embrace of the role have served as a compelling combination in the weirdly persistent series produced by Luc Besson and overseen by fellow French directors Pierre Morel and Olivier Megaton.
Taken opened in 2008 to toxic reviews. Critical opprobrium later softened when audiences warmed to Mills’s diplomacy-free approach in rescuing his gormless daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), from white slavery in the grimy Paris underbelly. Highly entertaining, if somewhat charmless, it wrought a loud Istanbul-set sequel fours years later, as inevitable as it was awful, Mills shooting every vengeful scumbag relation of the scumbag Albanian traffickers he’d smoked so mercilessly in France.
It made money, however, lots of it, and thus, from the dregs of Taken 2, Fox has brewed up a third entry in a brazen money-making exercise that might shame even Peter Jackson. Fittingly, Megaton takes the reigns once more, infusing this picture with the delicate subtlety one would expect from a man responsible for The Transporter 3.
Make no mistake, Taken 3 is a profoundly terrible film. Poorly directed, plagued by a rote plot and pedestrian action, the only distinctive trait is that it seems, remarkably, less enjoyable than its preceding instalment. At least one could catch a glimpse of the Bosphoros, or the elegance of the Blue Mosque, last time out. Now, in a move that suggests everyone making it was as bored as the audience is likely to be enduring it, Mills’s latest donnybrook is set in his own backyard of Los Angeles: a desperately dull place apparently, even with a cabal of lazily conceived Russian mobsters (led by Sam Spruell as the cartoonish villain) running amok. Indeed, in this soft-lit suburban jungle — think a less refined version of Michael Bay’s sun-dappled crassness — Neeson’s grizzled warrior buys stuffed toys for an adult daughter and attempts, half-heartedly, to woo Lenore (Famke Janssen), his ridiculously attractive ex-wife.
The excruciating first half hour crawls by during which Mills attempts to negotiate treacherous domestic ground, like handing out sage advice on purchasing puppies. In fairness, our hero appears to be enjoying the stunted normalcy as much as a trip to the dentist but when he is made a patsy for Lenore’s sudden murder, this being the universe of Taken, somebody is going to pay. The incredible truth is that from hereon out, events taken a turn for the worse. Neeson is a working actor, there’s no shame in that, and his cheque was surely a hefty one, yet, at 62, the fighting days are clearly behind him. Shuffling around a completely uninteresting conspiracy, he looks knackered by the end, the shield of Megaton’s hyperactive editing arguably a contributor to that overall sense of fatigue.
In the meantime, Grace — last seen, in this context anyway, merrily flinging live grenades around Turkish rooftops — must contend with her mother’s death, an oily step-father (Dougray Scott: obviously complicit) and the inconvenience of being plied with laxatives by her no-tactic-too-far patriarch. She has always played the distressed damsel with miserable enthusiasm, though her irritating character displays few signs of developing beyond that tired cliché. Of the other notable cast members, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker portrays the same perceptive cop he rolled out for both Phone Booth and The Last Stand.
Back when Neeson first growled that famous threat to "find' and "kill" the dirty scoundrels messing with his little princess, he did so in a gritty, hard-edged, 18-rated thriller. The same trope is embarrassingly aped here, more than once, with Mills now forced to trot out component parts of that iconic moment in a feature carrying a 12A certificate for maximum earning potential. Robbed of the impactful original’s visceral brute force, Neeson stars in little more than a dull, sterilised, child-friendly adventure movie. Late on, as he waterboards a hapless bad guy in the finest traditions of the CIA, pre-pubescent viewers are likely to recall more frightening examples of water usage in Frozen. Or in the bath.
Feeling lightyears longer than its 109 minutes, Bryan Mills’s ill-advised anthology may, at last, run out of gas, sealed off once and for all by a dreary finale delivering all the emotional resonance of a Downton Abbey Christmas special.
But hey, at least the opening titles are cool.
An edited version of this article was first published here.