Culture

Luc Besson’s Enhanced Action-Genre Techniques

Liam Neeson in Taken 3 (Fox)
Taken 3 thrills; the legacy of Francesco Rosi lives.

Why has Taken 3, the year’s first good action movie, got mostly terrible reviews (yet still out-grossed all new releases in its opening week)? The answer can be seen in one particular moment: When former CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) waterboards a bad-guy suspected of murder. Our Left-slanted critical constabulary doesn’t like that kind of thing; their knee-jerk politicized disapproval of enhanced interrogation techniques forces their reflex distaste for Taken 3. Adding to critics’ stupidity is their dismissal of Taken 3’s impressive political-thriller aesthetics.

The popularity of the Taken series is based on producer Luc Besson’s enhanced action-genre techniques. In his Taken and Transporter series, Besson has supervised craftsmanly directors who have refined chase- and fight-scene methods. Besson’s proteges — including stalwart screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen — have modernized the action movie to include awareness of global chaos. The real driving force behind the Taken series is Bryan Mills’s tough-guy embodiment of the West’s best hope in the fight against terrorism.

Neeson’s towering, strapping presence and the physical evidence of rough experience (from his gruff voice, crinkled eyes, and working-man’s hands) inspire the same popular response as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan and the iconographic John Wayne. Best of all, Besson and Kamen maintain Mills’s individual integrity: each Taken story forces Mills to personally reckon with the threat to civilization that has become unignorable since the conflicts in Aghanistan, Iran, Bosnia, Chechnya, and 9/11.

Taken 3 humanizes this dilemma when Mills responds to a personal tragedy and traces its source to the new millennium’s contagion of evil. American filmmakers have lost touch with this dilemma. Trite imitations of Taken–as in the new Michael Mann computer espionage film Blackhat and last year’s rip-offs The Equalizer and A Walk Among the Tombstones – still use Cold War tensions to animate their plots. Taken 3 continues the political precision of Taken 2 where terrorism is specified in the intent to cause harm and wield power through the menace of drugs, money, and violence. (Taken 2 ended with an unforgettable summation of why the war on terror is endless.)

These life-denying forces, when opposed by Mills’s conservative, life-, family- and nation-affirming virtues, are not appreciated by Left-leaning reviewers. They still think in Cold War and Vietnam era terms. But Besson’s action films (including The Fifth Element, Angel-A and District B-19) all exhibit humane responses to the changed complexion (and social and moral complexities) of post-colonial Europe. Taken 3, mostly set in Southern California, brings global terrorism home and specifies the virtues that Mills maintains despite private grief and anxiety.

Audiences enjoy Mills’s integrity and fortitude. (Plot details that don’t need to be revealed here spell out the importance of family, love, obligation, and evidence of trust — particulars that are understood by Mills’s closest associates and later realized by a police detective played by Forest Whitaker). Taken 3’s optimism, unlike the chic cynicism of Mann’s Blackhat, is also a generic virtue for Besson. When a cop unfamiliar with Mills’s going rogue warns, “This isn’t going to end well for you,” Big Daddy Neeson advises “Don’t be a pessimist.”

Only a judgmental pessimist (or fashionable nihilist) would be indifferent to the technical advances evident in Taken 3 as directed by Besson’s protégé, the splendid Olivier Megaton. As in Transporter 3, Megaton’s action scenes are built in concise, startling, readable fragments. He thinks graphically yet cinematically — a distinction from those blockbuster hacks who rely on CGI for fantasy set-pieces derived from video games rather than graphic- novel aesthetics. Megaton appreciates space and manipulates movement in montages that revive Eisenstein’s silent movie imagery at digital speed. A scene cross-cutting Mills scanning a surveillance video while police close in on him isolates the image of a tattooed hand hanging out of a vehicle’s window–an important clue that plays so briefly it’s almost subliminal.

That’s also a definition of the Taken series’ integrity. The moral and political imperatives behind Mills’ action exploits are so subliminal they outclass the films that use violence for mere excitation. The difference is what makes Neeson, Besson, and Megaton heroic.

***

Human Capital, a new modern epic expressing the social tension of contemporary Italy’s financial crisis, opens this week almost coincidental with the passing of Francesco Rosi, one of Italy’s greatest and most humane political filmmakers. Human Capital pales next to such masterpieces as Salvatore Giuliano, Hands Across the City, The Moment of Truth, Three Brothers and Christ Stopped at Eboli but director Paolo Virzi works in Rosi’s spirit and evokes his vision.

The emotional panorama of Human Capital observes the stress felt by social-climbing businessman Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), his rebellious daughter Serena (Matilde Gioli) and rich matriarch Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). Their reactions to a shared personal emergency illuminate the moral deficiency behind economic dilemmas that obsess the country.

While Rosi combined documentary veracity with political insight and visual elegance (he began as screenwriter on Visconti’s great meta-film Bellissima), Virzi uses a simpler melodramatic style. Emphasis on individual character sacrifices huge vision; Virzi’s ambition is smaller than Rosi’s but still admirable. Flashes of resentment and self-reproach make every character relatable, especially at their weakest moments.

Virzi’s title (from a novel by Stephen Amidon) suggests a kind of Marxist reduction such as Rosi always transcended. Turns out it’s insurance company legalese, as with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. But Virzi, following Rosi’s example, makes a movie that probes morality and avoids sarcasm.

— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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