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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Dir. Joss Whedon, USA, 142 mins, rated 12A

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner

Believe the hype, Avengers Assemble is one of the greatest comic book movies ever and certainly the most unashamedly fun. The ultimate superhero team-up has finally hit our cinema screens; the culmination of what is possibly the most expensive teaser campaign in movie history, that began with 2008’s Iron Man, and continued through The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2010) and last year’s Captain America. For the past 5 years, fans have delighted in Marvel’s carefully laid groundwork – the post-credits codas and the subtle and some not-so-subtle in-film references of characters and MacGuffins that have led to this momentous and gloriously epic cross-over movie.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, making his fifth appearance in the series and the most recurring) has a plan to pull together “Earth’s mightiest heroes” in order to defend the world against outside threats. His timing is spot on, as renegade Norse deity (of sorts) Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has just reappeared to prepare the way for an alien invasion. Together with S.H.I.E.L.D. stalwart Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and new face Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders off of How I Met Your Mother), Fury sets about recruiting his team of ‘Avengers’: genius billionaire playboy and inventor and wearer (or should that be pilot?) of the Iron Man suit, Tony Stark (Downey Jr), and recently defrosted supersoldier Captain America (Evans) are soon joined by genius scientist and occasional “green rage monster” Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) and Loki’s goody-goody hammer-wielding brother Thor (Hemsworth). Bolstered by shapely spy Black Widow (Johansson) and master archer Hawkeye (Renner), the team bickers and even comes to blows before an attack on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying Cloudbase-esque HQ brings them together for a final destructive showdown against Loki and his alien army in New York City.

To say there was a lot riding on Avengers Assemble is an understatement; never before (to my knowledge) has such a massive cross-over of characters been attempted. And thankfully what could have easily gone so wrong in so many ways instead works on just about every level. The key to the film’s success is writer-director Joss Whedon’s utterly fantastic script that manages to neatly tie up the threads from the previous films, fill the screen with several larger-than-life personalities and have them interact perfectly, and also flesh out the supporting characters. And above all it’s just so damn funny. It is no surprise that Stark gets most of the best lines; his withering and inventive putdowns find easy targets in the earnest and lycra-clad Captain America and the Shakespearean godlike Thor and allow us to briefly acknowledge how ridiculous these characters might appear in the ‘real-world’ setting and moments later totally accept them as a part of it. But it is Whedon’s stroke of absolute genius to position the Hulk as the visual comic relief – giving Ruffalo’s performance-captured green giant two particular scenes towards the end of the film that had the cinema audience in hysterics, shamelessly whooping and cheering, so much so that you risk missing Hulk’s hilarious pay-off line during his faceoff with Loki. And speaking of Loki, Tom Hiddleston delivers a magnificent and menacing villain that hopefully heralds a renaissance of well-spoken English villains of the sort we enjoyed in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. His Dr Lecter-like exchange with Black Widow (including a by-now-famous use of a Victorian-era obscenity) is one of the film’s quieter highlights.

Marrying a great ensemble cast with no-expense-spared special effects and, most importantly, a brilliantly funny script written by someone with a true love for the material, Avengers Assemble is blockbuster popcorn cinema at its best.

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Dir. Drew Goddard, USA, 95 mins, rated 15

Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams 

[Seems an odd way to begin a film review by suggesting that you, the reader, not read it before you see the film. But it’s only fair, it’s how I saw The Cabin In The Woods, knowing next to nothing about it, even closing my eyes and sticking my fingers in my ears and going “la-la-la” when they shoved the trailer in my face at an earlier cinema trip. But if you’re curious to hear a bit more about it then come with me and I promise to keep things “spoiler-free” (which is the way all reviews should be if you ask me).]

Five college friends – athlete Curt (Hemsworth) and his girlfriend Jules (Hutchison), good girl Dana (Connolly), bookish Jesse (Williams), and stoner Marty (Kranz) – head out to the woods to stay at a cousin’s cabin. On the way they stop at a creepy gas station to fill up and receive a warning (of sorts) from the creepy tobacco-spitting proprietor. The viewer with even a passing interest in these sort of films should be feeling in familiar territory about now, and will not be surprised that when the friends pull up to the titular cabin it bears more than a passing resemblance to the cabin from the Evil Dead films, complete with stuffed animal heads and huge picture windows that always have the curtains open, even at night. Exploring the cellar the group stumbles across what looks like a huge stockpile of props from the sorts of horror films that often feature a cabin in the woods; among them a creepy music box, a creepy book full of strange incantations, and a creepy puzzle box clearly designed to avoid a lawsuit from a well-known horror franchise involving a supernatural sadist with nails in his head. Of course one of the friends reads from the book, and soon they find themselves under attack from redneck zombies and the terror begins.

Let’s rewind a bit. The first scene of the five horror movie stereotypes getting ready to go on their trip is not actually the first scene of the film. The opening scene actually introduces a couple of government geeks, Hadley and Sitterson (played by Bradley Whitford and the always watchable Richard Jenkins), as they ride an electric cart through an anonymous but clearly extensive underground bunker somewhere, preparing for an unspecified operation of international importance.

How the story of the friends in the cabin is connected to the geeks in the bunker is only the first of many revelations, and one that has already been revealed to you if you’ve seen the trailer. But fear not, because there are plenty more twists and turns where that came from. And as the film plays out, and all the familiar horror movie tropes and stereotypes are dusted off and presented for your enjoyment before being neatly (and appropriately) eviscerated, you realise you’re watching something pretty special.

The Cabin In The Woods was co-written by Drew Goddard (writer of Cloverfield) and fan-favourite Joss Whedon (creator of cult TV shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel and currently flavour of the month with The Avengers) with Goddard making his directing debut. But this pedigree is only partly responsible for the considerable buzz surrounding the film’s release. The trailer, which is best avoided until you’ve seen the film, gives a little too much away, but it’s unfair to be too harsh on the Lionsgate marketing team, whose job it is to get bums on seats. While the more enlightened viewer might be happy to go see The Cabin In The Woods knowing as little as possible about it, you can’t expect the average cinemagoer to hand over their hard-earned cash without something to go on.

Perhaps the only complaint is the way the film has been advertised as a straight horror film, when really it’s a horror–comedy, a combination that is not easy to pull off, but one that Goddard and Whedon have absolutely nailed to the floor with a rusty knife. There are scary moments, and there are bloody moments, but it’s the whip-sharp humour that really holds the film together, with Jenkins and Whitford getting most of the funniest scenes (Whitford just pips it with a running joke involving a Merman).

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