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TAKEN 3

Producer:Luc Besson 
Director: Olivier Megaton
Writer: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Stars: Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Dougray Scott, Sa, Spruell, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, Jonny Weston and Dylan Bruno
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox 

C-

He may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has come awfully close to such superhuman feats in the previous installments of Luc Besson’s “Taken” series, and he’s at it again in this third go-around. There’s not much that’s new in “Taken 3”—it’s basically just another extended chase movie, one far longer–and sillier–than a Road Runner cartoon. The wrinkle this time is that Mills isn’t rushing about to save somebody who’s been kidnapped, but to prove his own innocence after he’s framed for killing his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). (The rationale behind the plot, spelled out rather blithely at the close, is both convoluted and idiotic.) The setting is more confined as well, being the area around Los Angeles rather than an international swath of territory.

But those changes hardly present an obstacle to Besson and his director Olivier Megaton’s serving up more of the same menu that made Neeson an action star late in his career. Unfortunately, it’s beginning to take a toll: he often looks as tired as Harrison Ford did in his later action vehicles. Still, with help from stuntmen and editors Audrey Simonaud and Nicolas Trembasiewicz, Neeson’s Mills negotiates all the physical demands, eluding capture by either the cops, led by Detective Frank Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) while protecting his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and tracking down, and dealing severely with, the true malefactors.

In the earlier installments, of course, the nasty guys were Albanians, but it’s characteristic of the even less imaginative quality of this installment that the villain is that most hackneyed of figures, a nasty Russian mobster called Oleg Malankov (Sam Spruell). The character is provided with an extraordinarily inane flashback to explain his brutality, but it doesn’t really distinguish him much from the Russian gangster, for example, that Marton Csokas recently played in “The Equalizer.” Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, and we’ve seen far too many.

“Taken 3” lacks the destructive mayhem of its predecessors: perhaps Los Angeles officials were less ready to allow the moviemakers to plow through quite as much real estate as those in Paris and Istanbul were. The relative lack of pyrotechnic pizzazz—there are a couple of explosions, but they’re pretty tame—will probably disappoint fans of the series, who will probably also react to the intrusive meetings Bryan arranges with Kim, and the sequences of Dotzler, a distinctly offbeat fellow, brooding over the case (which are dull despite Whitaker’s attempt to liven them up with some hammy bits of business), with much the same attitude that kids once did to the romantic interludes in old cowboy movies. The appearances of Dougray Scott as Kim’s sleazeball stepfather—whose involvement in all the shenanigans is pretty obvious from the movie’s prologue—have the same effect; one wants to yell at Megaton to just get on with it already—advice which, had he heeded it, would certainly have helped to reduce the movie’s unsuitably long running-time.

Still, one has to give Neeson his due: his broad shoulders have carried these dim-witted Besson creations far further than anybody could have expected. And Grace’s Kim, for what it’s worth, has matured somewhat over the course of the pictures; the girl is less of an irritating twit than she was at the start, even if the problem she’s gotten into with her boyfriend—in this case, a likable fellow played by Jonny Weston—adds a mawkish touch the proceedings don’t need. As for Spruell, he chews the scenery in predictably overripe fashion. So does Scott. Janssen, meanwhile, has little more than a cameo.

For a franchise that’s grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, the production values here are pretty awful: the action sequences—particularly the car chases—are very badly choreographed, with thoroughly mediocre visual effects, and both they and the numerous hand-to-hand combat scenes are marred by the cruelly claustrophobic cinematography of Eric Kress, for whom close-ups appear to be default mode, made even worse by the hyper, often blurry editing. Except for some nighttime shots of the city, Kress makes poor use of the L.A. locations, too, while Nathaniel Mechaly’s score is a chain of musical clichés.

After all the mayhem they’ve endured over the course of three films, one supposes that Bryan and Kim are in need of some quality vacation time for father-daughter bonding. One can imagine, therefore, that they’ll go off on a cruise (perhaps with boyfriend along), only to find the ship taken over by modern-day pirates. Naturally the Mills would swing into action and…. No, that would be ridiculous—almost as ridiculous as what transpires in “Taken 3.” Anyway, the advertising tag-line of this movie is, “It ends here.” And we all know how committed franchise-makers are to keeping such pledges of finality.

PREDESTINATION

Producer: Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan, Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig
Director: Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig
Writer: Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor, Olivia Sprague, Monique Heath, Christopher Stollery, Jim Knobeloch and Noel Herriman 
Studio: Vertical Entertainment 

B+

A cerebral sci-fi time-travel puzzler that proves consistently engrossing and, for all its contrivance and complication, satisfying, “Predestination” represents a considerable success for its fraternal writing-directing team of Peter and Michael Spierig and star Ethan Hawke, whose willingness to undertake unusual projects like his films with them and Richard Linklater have made him one of the more interesting American actors around. But it’s a special triumph for Sarah Snook, a little-known Australian actress whose turn should do for her career what Edward Norton’s curiously similar one in “Primal Fear” did for his.

The Spierigs and Hawke, of course, worked together before in “Daybreakers,” a 2010 vampire movie that, despite some twists, didn’t transcend the limitations of what was already a tired genre. While time-travel isn’t exactly a new concept, and even the idea of a time-travelling cop has been around before (it wasn’t even fresh when Jean-Claude Van Damme used it twenty years ago), the Spierigs, working from a 1960 short story titled “ –All You Zombies— “ by Robert A. Heinlein, have been able not only to construct a labyrinthine tale that leads (or rather jumps) from one surprise to another but to weave them all together into what proves a goofily plausible whole. And they direct their script in a style that recalls early Cronenberg in its mixture of matter-of-factness in the face of absurdity with a sort of hallucinatory queasiness. This is a film that doesn’t pound you with sledgehammer point-making, but lures you deeper and deeper into its ever-weirder web, pulling the rug out from under you repeatedly but leaving you happy to go along with the jolt and move on to the next level.

Revealing too much about the plot would be unpardonable, but it ruins nothing to say that much of it revolves around a terrorist known as the “Fizzle Bomber” blowing up sites in New York City during the 1970s. The first scene shows a man in a trenchcoat trying to stop the villain from setting his latest device in motion, but suffering terrible effects from the explosion when he fails. A shadowy figure, however, assists him to reach a device that transports him to a hospital where his face is reconstructed into that of Hawke, and he’s identified as a Temporal Agent who travels through time retrieving clues about the terrorist that might allow him to be caught. Before long he’s healed and is back on the job, working as a bartender in a NYC dive.

There he encounters a strange-looking, bad-tempered customer (Snook) who identifies himself as the writer of confessional stories that travel under the byline of “the Unmarried Mother.” During a long conversation, the fellow pours out his life story—which begins with his childhood not only as an orphan but as a girl. Told in elaborate flashbacks, the tale involves seduction, pregnancy, a kidnapping and gender transformation—as well as a stint as a recruit in a company looking for exceptionally talented women to serve the needs of astronauts in space, a prospect presented to her by a quietly authoritative character called Mr. Robertson (Noah Taylor). After hearing the bizarre recounting, The Agent offers Mother a chance to confront the man who ruined his life—and even to kill him.

Up to this point “Predestination” is odd but fascinating; from it, the picture becomes odder and even more fascinating. It wouldn’t be fair to disclose the direction it takes, or the shifts that follow; and while one may have doubts about how it winds up, precisely what those doubts are should be kept to oneself, at least until you’re debating them with somebody else who’s also seen the movie. Suffice it to say that the rules you’ve probably been told are essential to the very notion of time travel don’t necessarily apply here. And though this movie might change those rules, it plays pretty fair by the new set.

Whatever reservations one might harbor about how the narrative is worked out, in any event, it’s well-nigh impossible to have any about the amazing quality of Snook’s performance, which not only rescues a character that might have become little more than a joke but gives it emotional heft. Hawke supports her with a turn that’s mostly straightforward but intense when it needs to be, while Taylor coolly embodies the ultra-capable company man who recognizes potential—and danger—when he sees it. The rest of the cast handle their roles capably. And the behind-the-camera crew do very effective work on what was clearly a modest budget, from Matthew Putland’s production design and Janie Parker’s art direction to the sets designed by James Parker and decorated by Vanessa Cerne and Wendy Cork’s costumes. Ben Nott contributes elegantly unfussy camerawork and Matt Villa subtly paced editing, while Peter Spireig’s score is nicely understated. Nor should one overlook the outstanding contribution of makeup designer Steve Boyle.

“Predestination” may not explore very successfully the deeper issues about the human condition that it wants to touches on. But it works astonishingly well as an extended “Twilight Zone” tale told with consummate skill.