REVIEW: FAST & FURIOUS 6 (2013)

fast&furious6Dir. Justin Lin, 130 mins, rated 12A

Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Luke Evans

Watching The Fast And The Furious back in 2001, few would have imagined that this dumb but entertaining movie about a group of street-racers with a sideline in high-speed truck hijackings was about to launch one of cinema’s most lucrative film franchises (according to boxofficemojo.com, the 20th most successful franchise of all time – and that’s before the takings from this latest effort have come in). Yet here we are, 12 years and five installments later, with the release of Fast & Furious 6. True, there have been speed bumps and diversions along the way, but over the course of the series, Universal Pictures have been extremely canny in transitioning the films away from the niche street-racing culture and towards a more box office-friendly action series written around high-speed heist set pieces.

Sitting pretty atop a pile of loot from the previous film’s heist, the gang of fugitive drivers led by ex-street racer Dom Toretto (Diesel) and former FBI agent Brian O’Connor (Walker) have only one problem – they can never go home again. Right on cue, former nemesis Agent Hobbs (Johnson) turns up to offer the chance of a full pardon; but only if they agree to help him take down a team of skilled but murderous hijackers and their leader Owen Shaw (Evans). Hobbs gives Toretto another motive for coming on board – proof that not only has Torretto’s former lover Letty (Rodriguezbelieved murdered two films ago, in Fast & Furious) actually survived, but that she is now working as Shaw’s ruthless right-hand (wo)man.

And so the poachers turn gamekeepers (or in O’Connor’s case, turn back) and, after an obligatory getting-the-team-back-together montage, head to London (Hollywood’s city du jour it would seem) for a first crack at Shaw. Though few Londoners will recognize their city here, particularly the oddly deserted Piccadilly Circus streets that play host to the film’s one token racing scene, or the decrepit Tube platform with its flaking walls and ancient-looking carriages (the filmmakers apparently making little attempt to dress the long-closed Aldwych underground station).

First, the bad news: it’s a film where the acting treads a thin line between downright terrible and just plain wooden, and it’s a film with an incredibly dumb script. It’s a film where, despite the villain specializing in in-transit hijackings, the protagonist decides that a piece of sensitive military hardware is best removed from a well-fortified army base and transported by road with only two jeeps for protection. It’s a film that includes a completely superfluous subplot where O’Connor has himself arrested and incarcerated so he can question another inmate (the drug dealer Braga from Fast & Furious), yet doesn’t even bother to properly explain the villain’s motivations (“he is stealing these gadgets to sell to terrorists” is all we get). And best of all, it’s a film where, as far as Toretto and his gang of outlaw drivers are concerned, gravity is just another law to be broken.

The good news is: none of this matters. Fast & Furious 6 is a film that is almost entirely composed of overly-muscled bald men thumping each other while cars fly through the air, and boy is it entertaining; from the scene where Johnson’s Federal agent interrogates a Vin Diesel lookalike by demolishing the interview room with the suspect’s head, to the film’s ridiculously OTT Mad Max-esque climax where a giant cargo plane thunders down a seemingly never-ending runway as various cars battle each other at high speed alongside (and at one point inside) it. And there’s an impossible leap across two high bridges that is perhaps the film’s crowning moment of glorious idiocy.

Yep, this is the sort of film where you don’t just leave your brain at the door, you chuck it in the bucket seat of your souped-up Nissan Skyline. And as long as you’re willing to do that, you’re in for an utterly daft yet undeniably fun action movie that makes the initially intimidating two hour-plus running time race by.

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REVIEW: OBLIVION (2013)

oblivion

Dir. Joseph Kosinski, 126 mins, rated 12A

Cast: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Melissa Leo, Morgan Freeman

It is the year 2077, sixty years after humans fought a cataclysmic war against an invading alien species and won, but at what cost? The use of nuclear weapons may have wiped out the invaders (well, almost), but it left the Earth a barren wasteland. What is left of the human race now lives aboard a giant triangular space station waiting to relocate to one of Saturn’s moons (though how this would be any less barren is anyone’s guess), while down on Earth, huge ‘hydro-rigs’ have been set up to hoover up the seas, converting the planet’s water to fuel for the voyage.

Trouble is, not all of the aliens were destroyed, and those that remain – known as Scavs – have a nasty habit of trying to blow up the hydro-rigs. If humanity is to have a future elsewhere in the Solar System, the rigs must be protected, and this job falls to the unmanned aerial attack drones and their human repair teams.

If this sounds like a rather convoluted backstory, rest assured it’s established fairly effectively early on in the film (with minimal use of voice-over), when we are introduced to one such team: soldier-slash-repairman Jack (Cruise) and his by-the-book partner Victoria (Riseborough). Jack and Victoria live in a luxurious but curiously clinical-looking habitat built on stilts high above the ruined surface. He pilots a bubble ship, providing on-the-spot drone repairs, while she’s a home worker who provides a link to their superiors on the space station, and together they make for an effective team.

Complicating matters slightly is the fact that Jack has been having dreams of pre-war New York City and a strange woman (Kurylenko) that confuse him, since he was born long after the world was destroyed. When Jack goes against orders to investigate a spaceship crash, he discovers hibernation pods filled with what appear to be human survivors, and he begins to question whether he’s right to be following orders at all.

Oblivion is the second feature film from Joseph Kosinski, who made his directorial bones with the visually stunning but otherwise emotionally uninvolving Tron: Legacy. Like Kosinski’s first film, Oblivion is utterly beautiful to look at, with some stunning post-apocalyptic imagery that stays in the mind long after the film has finished. In one scene, Jack recreates the world’s final Super Bowl to the phantom cheers of an imagined crowd in the remnants of the Yankee Stadium, while later he finds himself drawn to the observation desk of the Empire State Building, buried almost up to its radio mast in volcanic sand (in an ironic touch, this might be the first post-apocalyptic movie where aliens have totally destroyed everything except our famous landmarks). In stark contrast to the ruined surface, the production design of the future tech is simply gorgeous, from the gleaming white bubble ship that Jack pilots through the post-apocalyptic skies to the couple’s iPad-chic (and impressively fingerprint-free) habitat.

However, unlike Tron: Legacy, Oblivion has a lot more substance to it, with a thought-provoking, twisty-turny story and characters you actually give a damn about. On the surface, yes, it bears similarities to a number of sci-fi films that have gone before, and it seems as though many of the film’s critics just can’t see past the fact that the drones have a red glowing eye (just like HAL!) or that, at one point, Cruise waters a plant (hey! There was a plant in WALL•E!). But look beyond these fairly superficial connections (what sci-fi film post-1968 hasn’t referenced 2001 in some way?) and there’s some plenty of meaty themes to chew on, such as what it means to be human, and the dangers of blindly following orders. At push you could consider it a $120 million indictment of America’s spiraling obsession with drone warfare and the dehumanisation of enemy combatants. 

So don’t listen to the naysayers. Oblivion is a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster with plenty to say if you’re willing to listen. My only regret is that I didn’t see it on a bigger screen. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I did actually shed a tear towards the end of the film – a solitary, incredibly manly tear of the sort that trekked courageously down Bruce’s granite-like cheek at the end of Armageddon – but a tear nonetheless.

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THE WHITEBOARD FROM THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Whiteboard from Cabin In The Woods

whiteboard-from-cabin-in-the-woods-notes

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REVIEW: JACK REACHER (2012)

Dir. Christopher McQuarrie, 130 mins, rated 12A

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog

Considering the fuss that greeted the casting of Daniel Craig – a blond – as James Bond, it was evitable that fans of the ridiculously readable (and incredibly successful) Jack Reacher novels might take issue with the casting of Tom Cruise as the books’ man-mountain protagonist. But in contrast to Bond, a figure characterized more by his catchphrases and the brands he surrounds himself with than by any particular physical attributes, the character of Reacher is largely defined by his stature. His bodily stats – six-foot-five height, 50-inch chest – are repeated so frequently throughout the series that they have become almost like a mantra. In fact, Jack Reacher is a man so ridiculously large and tough that in the third book he survives being shot point blank in the chest because his pec muscles absorb the bullet.

But as Brit author Lee Child so neatly pointed out, another actor might deliver 100% of the height but only 90% of Reacher. “With Tom, you’ll get 100% of Reacher with 90% of the height.” While Child might not share his literary creation’s aptitude for mathematics (or else relies upon some judicious rounding up), it’s certainly true that Cruise is one actor who can be relied upon to deliver a larger-than-life performance, and in Jack Reacher, he doesn’t disappoint.

Called in by defence lawyer Helen Rodin (Pike) in the aftermath of a shocking spree shooting, military cop-turned-drifter Jack Reacher (Cruise) is initially uninterested. He’s convinced that the prosecution have an open-and-shut case, because he knows something they don’t, namely that the accused – ex-Army sniper James Barr (Joseph Sikora) – has form when it comes to this sort of thing. Tempted by the promise of unrestricted access to the evidence, Reacher agrees to become Rodin’s investigator, if only to bury Barr. But a visit to the crime scene reveals a number of inconsistencies, and as Reacher and Rodin dig deeper into the crime and its victims, they begin to wonder if the random shooting was quite as random as it first appeared.

The opening scene, depicting the sniper picking his targets, is done in a chillingly effective point-of-view shot straight down the gunman’s telescopic sight – an arresting start to the story that ensures the audience is helplessly complicit in the horrific actions that follow. In fact, the scene is so effective that, even without an excess of gore, it goes way beyond what you might expect from the film’s child-friendly 12A.

The story unfolds, moving through a series of obstacles as effortlessly as the movie’s implacable hero. The fight scenes, though bloodless, are thrilling, and because the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, you don’t stop to consider the unlikelihood of this slightly reduced Reacher being able to take on (and beat) five guys at once. It’s Cruise doing what he does best, whether it’s delivering whipsmart dialogue or a serious beatdown, or displaying genius-level deductions (it makes a nice change to see an investigator actually doing some investigating). The obligatory car chase (with Cruise doing all his own driving) isn’t overplayed, and in an unconventional but ultimately effective piece of casting, German director Werner Herzog excels as the film’s Keyser Soze-like master villain, known only as The Zec.

Adapted from Child’s 2005 novel One Shot, the ninth in the Reacher series, Jack Reacher is the second film from writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie is perhaps best known as the writer of Bryan Singer’s neo-noir classic The Usual Suspects, and similar to that earlier film, Jack Reacher makes for a refreshingly old school thriller in an era where action movies often rely on huge CGI setpieces to patch over the flimsiest of plots. Oh, and look out for a nice cameo by the author playing a property desk cop (at six-foot five, Child is the same height as his creation, so perhaps unsurprisingly it’s a sitting-down appearance).

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100 DEPRESSING MOVIE DEATH SCENES

You’ll believe a man can cry… 100 movie characters meet their end in this compilation of classic, tragic death scenes (and yet not one of them is played by Sean Bean). WARNING: Contains spoilers (obviously). SECOND WARNING: Contains the scene with Artax in the Swamp of Sadness from The NeverEnding Story (traumatic to anyone of my advancing age).

The beautiful piece of music is ‘Empty Room (Trailer Version)’ by Zack Hemsey and is available here (he also did the fantastic track ‘Mind Heist’ used in the Inception trailer).

Here’s the full list of the characters and films featured:

Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982), Satine in Moulin Rouge! (2001), Sol in Soylent Green (1973), Ratso in Midnight Cowboy (1969), Thomas in My Girl (1991), William Wallace in Braveheart (1995), Marley the dog in Marley & Me (2008), Noah and Allie in The Notebook (2004), Sam Wheat in Ghost (1990), Uncle Ben in Spider-Man (2002), Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), Jennifer Cavalleri in Love Story (1970), Katharine Clifton in The English Patient (1996), Messala in Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus in Spartacus (1960), Mickey Goldmill in Rocky III (1982), Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941), Gandalf the Grey in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting in Gangs Of New York (2002), Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982), E.T. in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Robbie in Atonement (2007), Cecilia in Atonement (2007), Benjamin Button in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008), The Iron Giant in The Iron Giant (1999), Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Michael Sullivan in Road To Perdition (2002), Quint in Jaws (1975), Robert Neville in The Omega Man (1971), Maggie in City of Angels (1998), General Hummel in The Rock (1996), Emma in Terms Of Endearment (1983), King Leonidas in 300 (2006), R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Artax in The NeverEnding Story (1984), Ellie in Up (2009), Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man (1973), Alice Munro in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Rafer in The Wild Geese (1978), Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino (2008), Archy Hamilton in Gallipoli (1981), The Inventor in Edward Scissorhands (1990), Mark Antony in Cleopatra (1963), Cleopatra in Cleopatra (1963), Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Bambi’s mother in Bambi (1942), Danny Vinyard in American History X (1998), Maurice in Venus (2006), Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972), Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations (1994), Lester Burnham in American Beauty (1999), John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980), Carter in The Bucket List (2007), Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), James Cole in 12 Monkeys (1995), Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie (2008), Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential (1997), Hazel in Watership Down (1978), Christine Baxter in Don’t Look Now (1973), Optimus Prime in The Transformers: The Movie (1986), Capa in Sunshine (2007), Harvey Milk in Milk (2008), Harry Stamper in Armageddon (1998), Chris McCandless in Into The Wild (2007), Mufasa in The Lion King (1994), Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby (2004), Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan (1998), Maximus in Gladiator (2000), Vasili Borodin in The Hunt For Red October (1990), Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977), John Coffey in The Green Mile (1999), Nick in The Deer Hunter (1978), Marcus Wright in Terminator Salvation (2009), Samantha the dog in I Am Legend (2007), Léon in Leon (1994), Romeo in Romeo + Juliet (1996), Juliet in Romeo + Juliet (1996), Jenny Lerner and Jason Lerner in Deep Impact (1998), Ben in Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Big Daddy in Kick-Ass (2010), Jack Carter in Get Carter (1971), Hartigan in Sin City (2005), Trevor McKinney in Pay It Forward (2000), Sergeant Elias in Platoon (1986), Tony Montana in Scarface (1983), Darth Vader in Return Of The Jedi (1983), Marion Crane in Psycho (1960), Thelma and Louise in Thelma & Louise (1991), XXXX in Layer Cake (2004), Lisa in The Seventh Seal (1957), Apollo Creed in Rocky IV (1985), King Kong in King Kong (1933), Doctor Octavius in Spider-Man 2 (2004), Ripley in Alien 3 (1992), Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003), Jack Dawson in Titanic (1997), The Terminator in Terminator 2 (1991)

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REVIEW: SKYFALL (2012)

Dir. Sam Mendes, UK/USA, 143 mins, rated 12A

Cast: Daniel Craig, Judy Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris

Arriving on a tidal wave of advertising and hype, Skyfall sees the return of James Bond, the world’s least-secret secret agent, for another big-screen adventure (his twenty-third if you toe the party line and discount 1967’s spoof version of Casino Royale and 1983’s Never Say Never Again).

The film opens in Istanbul where James Bond (Craig) is hot on the trail of a stolen computer drive containing the identities of undercover agents. A rather perfunctory car and motorbike chase leads to Bond and the thief, later identified as mercenary Patrice (played by Ola Rapace, until recently husband of Dragon Tattoo actress Noomi), grappling on top of a train over a high bridge. Orders from M (Dench) lead to Bond being shot off the train by his own team and plunging into the water below. With Bond missing and declared dead, someone starts releasing the names of the agents in an attempt to discredit MI6, following up this cyber attack with a physical attack on MI6 HQ. News of the attack leads to Bond’s return, and despite concerns over his readiness for duty, M dispatches OO7 to track down the man behind the attacks, revealed as embittered ex-MI6 agent Raul Silva (Bardem). Silva is on a mission of revenge to take down his former employers and in particular take out his old boss, M. Note: Almost all of this story (and plenty more) is depicted in the film’s trailer.

Skyfall marks the third time that Daniel Craig has buttoned up a tuxedo over his straining frame and is, in the large part, another modern gritty thriller in the vein of Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace. In Craig’s first two outings, as we followed Bond’s development from rookie Double-O assassin, through love and loss, to experienced cold-blooded killer, we were given tantalizing hints to the existence of a larger conspiracy, with a mysterious organization – eventually identified as Quantum – who were pulling global strings and getting up to all kinds of behind-the-scenes shenanigans. For better or worse, Skyfall disregards all this and introduces a much tighter story focused almost exclusively on M and the vengeful Silva. (Admittedly there is a kind of running subplot about whether 007 is suitable for active duty, but considering only two films ago we were watching him on his first assignment doesn’t it seem a bit premature to start positioning Bond as over-the-hill?)

I’ve never been a huge fan of (Neal) Purvis and (Robert) Wade, the writing partners who took over script duties on the Bond series with The World Is Not Enough. I thought they’d redeemed themselves with the Casino Royale reboot, or at the very least managed to tame some of their worst habits, but in Skyfall – co-written with John Logan – the weaknesses are evident. Admittedly, some of my disappointment stems from the fact there are very few sequences in Skyfall that are not represented in the film’s trailer. What additional plot-points there are turn out to be obvious or easily predictable from the outset – and the revelation of what ‘Skyfall’ actually means elicits little more than a shrug – and despite all the globetrotting, the focus on MI6 means that the story seems oddly small in scale. There are also several moments in the action that are so idiotic that I was reminded of how I felt watching Prometheus: such as Silva going to great lengths to escape custody, disguising himself as a police office (again, in the trailer) and losing Bond in the crowded Tube, only to go and leave an ‘employees-only’ door obviously ajar. There’s a similar moment towards the end of the film when the story can only advance because Silva spots a torchbeam in the darkness.

Purvis and Wade have always been fans of referencing earlier Bond adventures but here the references feel more like recycling (the palm signature gun from Licence To Kill, an explosion at MI6 from the scriptwriting duo’s own The World Is Not Enough, the drive containing a list of agents from Mission: Impossible); other references make no sense at all in this new post-Casino Royale rebooted continuity (the Goldfinger-era tooled-up Aston Martin for example, where did that come from?). Even the locations – Istanbul, Macau and Scotland – are places we’ve been before in the franchise.   

Dialogue-wise, with the exception of a great word-association scene (shown almost in its entirety in the trailer) and some promising banter between Bond and the newly introduced Q, there are few other memorable exchanges, and mention has to be made of the few ‘comedic’ lines during what should be a pulse-racing chase through the London Underground that are just toe-curlingly awful.

Despite the material the film is helped by the fantastic cast: Bardem gives a wonderfully flamboyant performance that helps him avoid becoming another Dominic Greene (remember him?) while Ben Whishaw oozes geek-chic as Q. Bérénice Marlohe, who plays Sévérine, the film’s sacrificial lamb (a standard Bond film trope), looks stunning but is not given much to do, and her tacked-on sex slave background makes a subsequent shower love scene with OO7 unintentionally creepy. But the real savior of Skyfall is director of photographer Roger Deakins, a regular Mendes (and Coen brothers) collaborator. Skyfall is nowhere near the best Bond film ever, but it is easily the best looking. There is one particular scene with Bond and the mercenary Patrice engaged in a fight to the death that is filmed entirely in silhouette against a spectacular neon backdrop in a wide and largely single shot that is (perhaps deliberately) worlds away from the hyperkinetic, over-edited Bourne-style combat in the previous outing Quantum Of Solace.

Skyfall was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dr. No, the first in Eon’s wildly successful James Bond series. It’s perhaps appropriate then, that by the end of the latest Bond adventure we end up right back where we started.

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AMERICAN…

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JAMES BOND TITLE SONGS THAT RHYME THE NAME OF THE FILM

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REVIEW: LOOPER (2012)

 

Dir. Rian Johnson, USA, 118 mins, rated 15

Cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels

It’s a popular philosophical question: if you could go back in time and kill a young Adolf Hitler, thus preventing some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, would you? Most people with any moral sense would agree that the world would have been a better place had Hitler not been born, or at least not lived long enough to take power. But could you actually shoot a child? And what if you were presented with three children, one of which was the infant Hitler, but you didn’t know which? This is just one of several interesting scenarios explored in Looper, the new time-bending sci-fi thriller from writer-director Rian Johnson.

Looper opens in Kansas in the year 2044. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a special kind of hitman called a looper. His is a relatively skill-free job that involves being in a certain place at a certain time and shooting unarmed and shackled victims and disposing of the corpse – his victims appear, rather oddly, out of thin air, hooded and wrists-bound, with the looper’s payment in silver bricks strapped to their body. It’s not terribly demanding work, but Joe makes a decent living from it, enough to keep a nice loft apartment and drive an antique Mazda MX5. What’s special about the victims is that they have been sent back from the future, the year 2074, where newly invented but strictly outlawed time travel technology has been adopted by organized crime as neat way of making their enemies disappear. And while the job might sound great (to someone lacking in certain moral sensibilities), there’s a catch. At some point the looper will find his fee paid in gold instead of silver. This means that his contract has come to an end, and that the person the looper has just killed is himself, his older self sent from the future. He has, to use the terminology of the time, ‘closed his loop.’

And, soon enough, his next victim-to-be blinks into existence, this time unhooded, and it’s immediately apparent that this is his future self (played by Willis). With seemingly little effort, Future-Joe incapacitates his younger version and takes off, leaving Young-Joe desperate to track him down and take him out before his employer, mob boss Abe (Daniels), can exact a terrible punishment.

Watching the trailer for Looper you could be forgiven for assuming (rather angrily in my case) that in revealing that Bruce Willis was the older version of Gordon-Levitt’s character Joe, the makers had given away an important plot twist. However it quickly becomes apparent that this detail is hardly important at all. Loopers expect to kill their older selves eventually, it’s all part of the deal (and a good way to attract short-term thinkers to the job). What is important is the mission that Future-Joe is on, a mission of revenge against a child who will grow up to be the shadowy crime boss who killed Future-Joe’s wife. This individual is the Rainmaker, a kind of Keyser Soze of the future who, while conducting a reign of bloody terror in his own time, is also busy closing all the loops in the past.

Looper is being compared to several well-respected time travel movies that have come before, such as The Terminator, Back To The Future, and Willis’s own 12 Monkeys, and with good reason. It’s an intelligent, thought-provoking and exciting thriller that, in my opinion, is actually far more daring than those aforementioned classics when it comes to playing with the mechanics of time travel. While this leaves the story open to considerable paradoxes, Looper fearlessly embraces them, and is all the better for it – in particular, the concept of communicating with one’s older self by self-harm is at times intriguing and, in one scene early on in the film, quite horrifying. The strong script is like manna from heaven to such a seasoned cast. Sharing the role of Joe, Gordon-Levitt gives an effective performance that quickly makes you forget the initially disconcerting facial prosthetics, while Willis is back to what he does best (watching him wielding twin machine guns as he rampages with undeniably cool efficiency through a mafia safe house means that maybe Die Hard 5 isn’t such an outlandish prospect after all). And special mention must surely go to child actor Pierce Gagnon, whose performance as Cid – possibly celluloid’s creepiest kid since Damian broke the fourth wall at the end of The Omen – is utterly spellbinding.

Combining big ideas with a not-too-unfamiliar dystopian future setting, and throwing in some hard-hitting scenes of mutilation and child murder to boot, and you’ve got grown-up sci-fi at its best. And if the buzz around the film is anything to go by, the success of Looper is guaranteed to be the only predictable thing about it.

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REVIEW: TAKEN 2 (2012)

Dir. Olivier Megaton, France, 91 mins, rated 12A

Cast: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Rade Serbedzija

The first Taken was a relatively low-budget action gem that helped establish Liam Neeson’s credibility as an action movie star. In it, Neeson plays Bryan Mills, ex-CIA agent turned overly-protective father, a man with a cool leather jacket and a very particular set of skills – specifically, looking for, finding, and subsequently killing bad guys. When his daughter Kim (Grace) is kidnapped by human traffickers during a trip to Europe, Mills heads over to Paris to put those particular skills to good use.

Taken 2 picks up soon after the events of the first film, with the bodies of the dead traffickers arriving back in their home village in Albania. It turns out that even brutal sex slavers have families who care about them, and in a touching funeral scene, the surviving relatives, led by Murad Hoxha (Serbedzija), swear vengeance. You see, Murad is not just the head of the Albanian mafia, he’s also the father of Marko, that guy who Mills, in the previous film, left wired to the Parisian mains. And when it comes to looking for and then finding the man who knifed, shot and electrocuted their loved ones, the Albanians demonstrate some pretty good skills of their own. Now, having tracked Mills and his family to their holiday hotel, the stage is set for the Albanians to make the same ultimately fatal mistakes all over again.

This time around, Luc Besson (again writing and producing) and director Olivier Megaton have allowed the Paris tourist board to breathe a sign of relief and turned their attention east to Istanbul. And while Turkey’s largest city certainly makes for a more exotic setting, viewers familiar with Istanbul might be surprised that this largely secular modern city is populated largely by burqa-clad locals who, when they’re not parking fruit carts in the path of Mills’ speeding car, stand and stare with open hostility at his daughter (and that’s before she starts throwing grenades around).

Like the first film, Taken 2 plays as an incredibly lean chase movie with some great Neeson beatdowns interspersed with a couple of clever ‘how-to’ set-pieces, including one ingenious scene where the kidnapped yet resourceful Mills guides his daughter to his unknown location with nothing more than a city map, a marker pen, a shoelace and those aforementioned hand grenades. There’s also a frantic car chase given an extra frisson by the fact that Kim is still learning to drive (though funnily enough this doesn’t stop her executing some pretty nifty handbrake turns when the need arises). And while both films share a similar structure – introduction, kidnap, chase, epilogue – the mechanics are slightly different second time around. In the first film, Mills interrogated and tortured his way up to the top of the trafficking food chain, and we only discovered the next batch of villains as Neeson did. Here we already know all the villains, because we’re introduced to them in the opening scene, and instead of questioning each henchman, Mills always knows who to kill next because he sees them at the end of a dingy alleyway, or dragging his ex-wife (Janssen) into a battered van. But what the film loses in exposition, it makes up for in pacing, making for one pretty much uninterrupted, breathless chase of film.

Much has been made about cuts made to Taken 2 by 20th Century Fox in order to secure the more family– and box office-friendly 12A rating (cuts the distributors themselves, not the censor, requested). Interestingly, neither installment portrays much actual bloodshed, but with a plot mired in the European sex trafficking industry, the first Taken was never going to be a realistic candidate for a 12A, no matter how many gunshots or headbutts were trimmed. This time around, the 12A rating was more easily in reach and apparently achieved with cuts to three scenes (according to the BBFC website). And while we should only judge a film by what is on the screen, rather than what isn’t, going from a 15 to a 12A does have wider implications for the overall tone of a movie, rather than say a drop from 18 to 15. Although Taken 2 is certainly still a violent film, it does lack the cold brutality (and some might say outright sadism) of the first film (which deserved its 15-rating). While this is not a reason in itself to judge a film harshly, there have been grumbles that in toning down the violence, some of the fight scenes have been rendered less than coherent and this is indeed the case in a few instances. The more cynical among us might also question the recent trend of self-censored theatrical releases that come with the promise of an ‘uncut’ higher-rated version to follow on DVD. While this allows for a greater potential audience at the cinema, it also carries the risk of older fans deciding against paying premium cinema prices for an ‘abridged’ version of the film and choosing to wait for the DVD release instead.

On balance, if you enjoyed Taken, then chances are you’ll enjoy Taken 2; it’s a very similar animal, albeit one that sadly has had some of its teeth pulled.

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