The bagels were still warm, you see.
Forest Whitaker’s homicide detective is doing his fine little Hercule Poirot imitation. (Really, he’s sublime. We’ve found David Suchet’s replacement if he’s up for it.)
And, lo, because of those bagels – still fresh from the corner cafe where the suspect, Bryan Mills, picked them up before discovering his ex-wife slain in his bed – our brilliant detective, with his rubber band tic, and his beyond-next-level thinking, and his thoughtful demeanor… Dude’s already in on the readily apparent: this is a clear framing. Bryan Mills didn’t do this. Give him a day, maybe two, and he’ll clear Bryan of all charges and find the guy that did.
But that’s not how Bryan operates, because, y’know, it’s Liam Neeson in late-career-badass-mode and, heck, he’s already taken out half of the scummy Eastern European population in Eastern Europe. Why stop there? As an opening scene that doesn’t pay off for what feels like almost the entire movie makes clear, there are some completely unrelated scuzzy Eastern Europeans in Los Angeles who need some Neesons-ing.
What did these Russians thugs do to pull themselves into Bryan’s unrelenting orbit? That is almost entirely unclear, even after it is explained in detail by the accused and condemned, Malankov. A glowering, one-dimensional gangster who graduated summa cum laude from the Luc Besson School of Glowering, One-Dimensional Gangsters (Besson writes and produces, but hands direction to Olivier Megaton), Malankov seems to have little to no idea who the brusque, Irish killing-machine standing before him even is! It’s not that he didn’t kill Lenore, Bryan’s ex-wife (Famke, why they always do you like that in the third movie?!); it’s just that it was an ancillary component of a simple business deal got wrong. Malankov, with his menacing opening-scene, and his impenetrable fortress penthouse, is a goddamn Trojan Horse.
The movie math is all wrong here. John Wick soared to critical acclaim because the stakes were so clear: a puppy had died. That puppy had belonged to the most legendary assassin in all the land. All parties involved knew what was coming if a truce was impossible, and the film made clear that a truce was impossible. Action commenced.
Similarly, the first Taken’s equation was straight-forward: Foreign Sex Traffickers + Kidnapped Daughter = Pissed-off Retired Super-Spy. The iconc scene that launched Taken into the annals of movie lore – the phone call where Bryan spoke directly to the men who had taken his daughter – is masterclass screenwriting. We know who our good guy is, we know who our bad guys are, we know what everyone wants, and we know that, in spite of impossible odds, Bryan “will find” the people who did this and “will kill” them. As long as the Taken film’s focused on the repercussions that emanated from Bryan’s single-minded quest to save his daughter before time ran out (and, yes time could run out), they at least had their formula right. No matter how icky it could get seeing Neeson off one anonymous Muslim face after another, at least the battle lines were clear. Simple movie alchemy.
Now, with this third film, this series has left the European saga, and anything resembling a sturdy foundation, behind it. At many points, people condescend to Bryan’s fathering skills, as if this man hadn’t single-handedly rescued his daughter from a veritable army. Daddy took out an entire family tree, guys; his resume is set.
The events of the first two films barely come up. Which seems more than a tad strange – it makes Taken 3 feel less like a sequel to those movies and more like some subpar thriller script that was out there, and, oh hey, let’s stuff the Mills family in there for old times sake. Taken 2 was it’s own special hell, but it mitigated that inevitable and weary Die Hard-ish question (How many times can this family get “taken”???) by building its plot around the revenge of the aggrieved. Here? In Taken 3? This is just some unrelated, nonsense, bad luck.
The root of Tak3n’s problem: Lenore’s current husband Stuart St. John, who is played by Dougray Scott here after being played by Xander Berkeley in the first film. (Apperently, going evil makes you younger.)
In Taken, that character bared the brunt of the gruff and emasculating line “Now’s not the time for dick measuring, Stuart!” NOW, apparently, is the time for dick measuring, as Stuart, who is a much seedier guy then had been previously let on, and Malankov, who is an old business partner, square off in one of the most confounding murder plots I’ve ever seen. Let’s see if we can parse this:
- Malankov is owed money and threatens Stuart by killing Stuart’s accountant
- Stuart and Malankov, in spite of this bad blood, concoct a scheme off-screen to kill Lenore for her $12 million insurance policy
- They plan to frame Bryan to keep him in jail and out of their hair, presumably because he’s a scary dude
- Stuart texts Lenore from Bryan’s phone while pretending to tell Bryan to back off
- Malankov abducts Lenore at the faraway gas station Stuart drew her too, than leaves her body in Bryan’s apartment while he is out grabbing bagels after receiving a text from her phone
- The police show up just as Bryan sees Lenore’s body (he is conveniently holding the murder weapon)
I guess it stands to reason that the first question to ask these two masterminds is: “Why involve the man who brought half of Europe to its knees? Like, at all?” This isn’t Amazing Amy seamlessly framing her doofus of a husband for her own murder in Gone Girl; this is the one guy in all of Los Angeles who is most unlikely to react rationally to being framed. Rather than frame him, I dunno, maybe make it look like a random mugging. Better yet, get them both while they’re eating bagels together! I don’t like doing the criminal thinking for criminals, but sometimes you just want to step through the screen and micro-manage a henchman for everyone’s sake.
Either way… Do anything possible to avoid angering Liam Freakin’ Neesons!
The other issue is that Taken 3 never makes it clear exactly how this plan came about; what I’ve drawn out above mostly comes from inferences that Malankov and Stuart had more open communication lines than they seem to have in the film. If they were in fact adversaries, then none of this makes any sense.
But these two jerks are not even the most nonsensical thing about Taken 3. We’ll save that honor for Bryan, who has so little faith in the criminal justice system, he would rather cause a deadly pileup on the interstate than be brought in for interrogation. (To be fair, the cops handle that situation just as poorly, using action movie logic in a high-speed hostage situation.) I won’t claim to be an expert on police procedure, but my impression is that Bryan would not have been immediately executed had he surrendered peacefully and calmly explained his whereabouts, maybe pointing officers in the direction of the smiling cafe worker who had just handed him bagels.
Yeah, the first Taken had it’s own stereotype-ribbing thread about Bryan’s mistrust for the French police and their ability to find his daughter, but it had one thing working in its favor – it didn’t go out of its way to make it look like the French officials were constantly on the verge of a breakthrough. If it had done that, Bryan would look less like an essential savior and more like a stubborn nuisance who wants to win a savior race.
Which brings us back to the warm bagels. As he puts a bow on the film, Whitaker’s Inspector Dotzler brags that he knew all along, knew from the minute he popped that bagel in his mouth and felt it’s fluffy heat. And this isn’t a surprise; the filmmakers constantly highlight the bagels as an indicator of Bryan’s innocence, lingering on Inspector Dotzler as tries to weigh their presence against the skittish behavior of a suspect-on-the-run. Dotzler is always ten steps ahead of everyone but Bryan, who is, like, ten-and-a-half steps ahead, and the only reason Dotzler doesn’t have a chance to conduct a rational interrogation of Bryan sooner is because every other cop has a severe case of convenient pig-headedness. Dotzler as played by Whitaker is brilliant, compassionate, intuitive, and, ultimately, very forgiving (he says he could have Bryan arrested for hacking a police cruiser, but there are about ten thousand other things he could arrest Bryan for). He is, in short, exactly the homicide detective we would want on a case like this. To a tee.
It’s fascinating to hang the plot of an action movie on suspicion that the police and the courts will not be able to competently suss out innocence, particularly directly in the wake of the unprecedented success of the Serial podcast, which saw a reporter analyze, across 12 episodes, the details of a case that was so poorly investigated when it happened that it’s almost impossible to tell, 15 years later, whether the guilty verdict that put Adnan Syed away was valid or not. With a simple casting change, Taken 3 could have very easily ridden that wave. But it does itself no favors by making Dotzler the embodiment of that meticulous cop that we all wish, as we listen to Serial, could have been working the beat in Baltimore in 1999.
Without that tonal issue, Taken 3 is merely a hollow film with editing so frenetic, every establishing shot is shown from three angles in quick, jumpy succession. It features some fun shootouts and a novel moment of spycraft every so often, but mostly, it’s a film with a pregnancy subplot that exists mostly as a means to martyr the dead Lenore, who had been rendered a Woman in a Refrigerator; with dead ends like Bryan retrieving a hair sample for no reason; and with – in those moments where it attempts to emulate something like real human interaction, before plot machinations kick in – music cues so obnoxious and overbearing, they seem like they must be covering up for bad acting, even when they are not. (Liam NEESONS is still Liam Neeson, the great actor, after all, as has been made clear in recent humanist meditations mismarketed as action films like The Grey and A Walk Among the Tombstones.)
But with that tonal problem – with it’s insistence that Dotzler knew about those bagels all along – Taken 3 just makes it’s hero seem like a headstrong jerk. Maybe it’s time to consider that Mills, in the way he flaunts his “particular set of skills,” has always been a jerk. In playing its hand so poorly, Taken 3 – which features, in the wake of films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Railway Man, a scene of waterboarding that we’re supposed to… cheer?! – forces a necessary reconsideration of the first two films. All three Taken films (like Keifer Sutherland’s 24) have been plot machines meant to put us firmly in the corner of that War on Terror boogeyman, the one who’s mastered all the not-so-nice tactics we insist we as a culture are above. What does it say about us – about me – that it took Bryan rampaging around an American city coldcocking white guys to break the spell and really force the question of what’s being taken and who’s doing the taking?