Liam Neeson

A Walk Among The Tombstones

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2014

Universal Pictures

Directed and Written For The Screen by Scott Frank

Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Tobin Armbrust and Brian Oliver

Based on the novel “A Walk Among The Tombstones” by Lawrence Block

 I was about an hour into A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES when it hit me that I was watching a period piece. And it hit me with real surprise because the movie takes place the 1990’s before The Internet, home PC’s and cell phones really became indispensable and integral components of our daily lives. And the thing is this: I remember the 1990’s. I was there. I lived through the 1990’s and I can’t rightly call a movie a period piece if I actually lived during that period, can I?

But yes, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is indeed a period piece because it takes place in the 20th Century and we are now in the 21st. But it’s not just the lack of modern technology that makes this movie a period piece. One of the characters, a street urchin named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) upon finding out that Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is a private detective demonstrates that he’s familiar with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. And Matthew Scudder is very much a literary grandson of those two classic P.I.’s

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Matthew Scudder, once a NYPD cop, left the force due to an accidental shooting he was involved in while drunk. He’s now sober and maintaining his sobriety while working as an unlicensed private detective. As he puts it to his prospective client, drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) “I do favors for people. And in return they give me gifts.” The favor Kenny Kristo wants Scudder to do for him is to find his wife who has been kidnapped. In return Kenny will give Scudder the gift of $20,000.

Scudder’s investigations put him on the trail of two truly monstrous psychopaths who have hit on a novel idea: they kidnap the wives and daughters of drug dealers knowing full well that the dealers can’t go to the police or FBI for help since that would expose what they do to the authorities. But as Scudder digs deeper into the case he discovers that this pair are more interested in killing their victims than the million dollar ransoms they demand.

Film Title: A Walk among the Tombstones

I never realize how much I miss this kind of story until I see it on screen. All the fun has gone out of being a private eye as now all they have to do is know how to work a computer. Matthew Scudder does it the old fashioned way. He does legwork. He goes to the library and uses a microfiche (Hah! Go ahead and Google that!) He asks questions and interacts face to face with people. And instead of taking DNA samples he uses his brain coupled with his years of experience and the instincts he’s developed to find the kidnappers. It’s quite the performance from Liam Neeson. I know people who saw the trailers for this and dismissed it as another variation of “Taken.” Trust me, in tone, in story and most importantly, in character this is nothing like Neeson’s “Taken” movies. I liked how the Matthew Scudder character doesn’t angst over his alcoholism. It’s part of his personality, yes, but it doesn’t define him. It was responsible for a tragic mistake in his past but he’s stepped up to do something about it so that it doesn’t happen again.

I really enjoyed the supporting cast in this one. Mainly because most of the faces were not familiar to me and so I wasn’t watching the actors playing these roles. I was watching the characters. Acting honors in this movie go to Boyd Holbrook as the drug addicted brother of the drug trafficker. He and Scudder bond over their mutual addictive problems and he turns out to be more pivotal to the plot than you would think at first. Brian “Astro” Bradley is also very good as TJ who bonds with Scudder due to his interest in detective fiction and wanting to be a detective himself.

And living in Brooklyn I naturally loved that the movie was filmed here. Some of those same streets that Scudder walks on I’ve either walked on myself or driven down. My tax guy used to have an office right across the street from the graveyard that figures prominently in a suspenseful and tense hostage/money exchange. Unlike a TV show like “The Strain” which goes out of its way to insist that it’s taking place in Brooklyn but never shows me a recognizable street or landmark, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is very clear that it’s a New York movie and lets you know it with every shot.

So should you see A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES? Absolutely. It’s way better than “8 Million Ways To Die” the 1986 attempt to bring Matthew Scudder to cinematic life. Jeff Bridges did his best in the role but was sabotaged by the direction of Hal Ashby. Brilliant as he is, Ashby was the last director in the world who should have been directing a hard boiled P.I. thriller. And Scudder is such a New York character (New York City itself can be said to be a supporting character in the Scudder novels) that moving him to Los Angeles just seemed wrong.

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But A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES never goes wrong from start to finish. In a lot of ways it’s a refreshing throwback of a movie, one full of rock solid performances and a story to match. Don’t wait to see this one on DVD or Netflix. Go check it out while it’s still in the theater. Enjoy.

Rated R

113 Minutes

A Million Ways To Die In The West

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2014

Universal Pictures

Directed by Seth MacFarlane

Produced by Seth MacFarlane, Scott Stuber and Jason Clark

Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild

I’ll give Seth MacFarlane credit for his ambition in making a western comedy. Mel Brooks pretty much had the last word in that genre with his side-splitting “Blazing Saddles” a film that to this day I still consider the funniest movie ever made. And Mel Brooks is safe as A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST comes nowhere near the level of hilarity that “Blazing Saddles” does. Oh, it tries hard and there are some touches here and there that are homages to “Blazing Saddles”: the overblown theme music that sounds as if it were scored for a straight-up Western Saga. The townspeople who act as a Greek chorus commenting on the antics of the main characters. The gleeful politically incorrect jokes.

But where Seth MacFarlane goes off course that there are long stretches of the movie where I think he forgot he was supposed to be making a comedy. I appreciate his efforts to give us an honest love story in there but he had no idea how to smoothly integrate the two. So we get a comedy that stops dead in its tracks for the love story which in turn has to be put on hold when MacFarlane realizes he hasn’t given us a joke in the last five minutes.

It’s Arizona, 1882 and as failing sheep farmer Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) puts it; “Out here everything that isn’t you is trying to kill you.” People in the town of Old Stump die in horrible, sudden ways and Albert is miserable. The only light in his life is his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) who dumps him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) a foppish dandy with a wicked mustache.

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During a bar brawl, Albert saves the life of Amanda (Charlize Theron) who has come to Old Stump with her brother. The two of them work on a friendship and Amanda encourages Albert to challenge Foy to a duel for Amanda’s hand in a week. Unfortunately, Albert is the worst shot in the West but luckily, Amanda just happens to be a markswoman of near supernatural skill who assures Albert she can teach him to shoot by then. Albert will need to be able to shoot but not for the reason he thinks. Amanda is the wife of Clinch Leatherwood, the most notorious gunfighter in the territory and when word gets back to him via Amanda’s brother (who really isn’t her brother but a member of Clinch’s gang assigned to keep an eye on her) that Amanda and Albert are getting way too close for comfort, Clinch comes to town intending to kill him.

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This actually is a pretty good Western story and if you took the comedy out of the movie entirely you still would have a solid Western, especially when the situation gets complicated with Albert and Amanda actually falling in love and Albert having to sort out exactly which woman and which life he wants. But where the problem comes in is that first of all the movie is simply too long to support such a slim story. Clocking in at 116 minutes there just aren’t enough jokes to justify that running time and as a result we have long stretches devoted to the love story which is actually kinda sweet and charming.

There’s been a lot of criticism of Seth MacFarlane’s performance but I myself didn’t have a problem with it. No, he’s no great actor but he has a sincerity and unpretentiousness about him that I like. He knows he’s no Marlon Brando and doesn’t try to be. He does the best with what he’s capable of doing and for me that was good enough. Liam Neeson is terrific as always but I think somebody must have slipped him an alternate version of the screenplay as he acts as if he’s in a serious Western. It’s Charlize Theron who walks away with the acting honors in this one. She looks like she’s having a ton of fun being in a Western and glides back and forth between the comedic and the dramatic without a hitch or a bump.

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Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman provided a lot of the laughs for me as a Christian couple who have a truly unique relationship. She’s the town’s favorite whore who insists that she and her fiancé (Ribisi) wait until they’re married to have sex. The highlight of the movie is the many cameos sprinkled here and there. Some of them you’ll get right away. Some you won’t. I had no idea Ryan Reynolds and Ewan McGregor were in the movie until I read the credits at the end and there’s one cameo that had the audience we saw the movie with cheering and applauding.

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I have to say that the cinematography is absolutely fantastic. MacFarlane shot most of this movie in Monument Valley where so many classic Westerns were filmed and MacFarlane takes full advantage of the location. There are many scenes that are simply beautiful and it goes a long way to making A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST look and feel like a grown-up motion picture instead of like a TV pilot on steroids like “Ted”

So should you see A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST? I say yes, but if you haven’t seen it yet, try and catch a matinee instead of paying full price or even wait to rent. It’s a funny movie but nowhere near as funny as it could have been. The too-long running time and thinness of the story means that there’s no way to justify the long lag time between the jokes. Still, the cast is fun to watch and what the hell, it’s the summertime. You won’t hear me say this very often but I will in this case; go see A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST and be sure that when you turn off your cell phone before the movie starts, turn off your brain as well.

 

Rated R

116 Minutes

The LEGO Movie

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2014

Warner Animation Group/Village Roadshow Pictures

Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Produced by Dan Lin and Roy Lee

Screenplay by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Based on Lego Construction Toys

The only people I can see having a problem with THE LEGO MOVIE are the same Batman fans who had a problem with the animated TV series “The Brave and The Bold.” Like THE LEGO MOVIE, “The Brave and The Bold” wasn’t afraid to poke fun at Batman and lighten up the character. Plenty of Batman fans absolutely detested “The Brave and The Bold” as they thought it was outright blasphemy that any trace of humor or comedy should or could be associated with Batman. Those are the ones who need to stay away from this movie, then. Me, I got a kick out of a Lego Batman who flies around in a Lego Batplane with his girlfriend composing heavy metal songs about how cool it is to be Lego Batman.

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Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is a construction worker living in Bricksburg, a Lego city that apparently is one huge construction project. He cheerfully follows the instructions for his daily routine as laid out in his instruction manual and goes to work singing the only song that exists in this world; “Everything Is Awesome!” I song I guarantee you will absolutely not be able to get out of your head once you’ve heard it.

One day at work Emmet finds a mysterious red brick that seems to speak to him and gives him visions. He passes out and upon awakening finds the brick attached to his back and himself in the custody of Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson)  the chief henchman of Lord Business. (Will Ferrell) Lord Business has possession of The Kragle, a superweapon that he intends to use to freeze the various realms of The Lego Universe in place forever. The only thing that stands in his way is a prophecy that was spoken to him eight and a half years ago by the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) that a person called The Special would use The Piece of Resistance to stop The Kragle.

Emmet is rescued by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) from the clutches of Bad Cop/Good Cop and takes him to Vitruvius who explains that there are Master Builders fighting against Lord Business, so named because they are capable of building anything they need out of Legos without need of an instruction manual, simply using their own creativity. Other Master Builders are Lego versions of characters we’re familiar with such as Batman (Will Arnett) Superman (Channing Tatum) Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) Wonder Woman (Cobie Smulders) Shaquille O’Neal (Shaquille O’Neal) Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) William Shakespeare. (Jorma Taccone) And a few other characters we’re meeting for the first time such as Metal Beard the Pirate (Nick Offerman) Benny The Space Guy (Charlie Day) and Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie) a unicorn/anime kitten hybrid whose unrelenting optimism and upbeat cheerfulness borders on the frightening.

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Can Emmet overcome his lack of creativity and come up with a plan to unite The Master Builders into a team and defeat Lord Business? What is The Piece of Resistance and how exactly is it supposed to be used to stop The Kragle? And what is the secret of The Man Upstairs?

Finding out the answers to these questions is a delight for the audience to find out as the characters do and you’ll have a good time doing so. A movie like this walks a fine line in entertaining kids while keeping adults engaged and the adults at the showing of THE LEGO MOVIE Patricia and I attended sounded like they were having just as much fun as their kids. I know we were.

The more cynical among you would say that THE LEGO MOVIE is simply a 100 minute commercial to sell toys and you’d be wrong. The filmmakers have actually taken their time to tell a real story about creative freedom. Lord Business wants to lock everything into a set form, following a rigid set of rules and instructions while The Master Builders want everybody to be free to explore whatever it is they can dream up and create. But it doesn’t beat you over the head with that message and never forgets it’s supposed to be entertaining and funny as well. Chris Pratt is utterly charming as Emmet. Between this and “Guardians of The Galaxy” this is going to be a good year for him. Will Arnett walks off with the voice acting honors in this one as his Batman is so wickedly pompous. And Jonah Hill is right behind with his Green Lantern who so desperately wants to be Superman’s best bud and is constantly rebuffed by the Lego Man of Steel.

But it’s not really fair to single out one or two because everybody gets a chance to shine with their characters and get their funny lines or scenes as the rollercoaster plot takes us through various Lego worlds and to the final confrontation with Lord Business that definitely did not end the way I thought it would.

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So should you see THE LEGO MOVIE? By all means. It’s got terrifically colorful animation and and an outstanding voice cast. The story is simple enough for kids to grasp but witty enough that it doesn’t insult the intelligence of adults. This is the best kind of movie. One that does not want to do anything but entertain, make you feel good and send you home with a smile on your face.

Rated PG

100 minutes

Excalibur

1981

Orion Pictures/Warner Bros.

Produced and Directed by John Boorman

Screenplay by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg

Based on “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Thomas Malory

The 1980’s was a rich and fertile time for heroic fantasy/sword and sorcery films. The original “Clash of The Titans” “Dragonslayer” “Conan The Barbarian” “Conan The Destroyer” “The Sword and The Sorcerer” “Ladyhawke” “The Beastmaster” and “Legend” just to name a few. There were also the more whimsical fantasy movies such as “The Dark Crystal” “Labyrinth” “Krull” and “The Neverending Story.” All of these movies still have loyal followings and deservedly so. For various reasons they’re great examples of how heroic fantasy/sword and sorcery movies were done back in the day without CGI. But whenever somebody asks me to recommend an heroic fantasy/sword-and-sorcery movie of that period I always point them in the direction of a movie I think has been undeservedly forgotten; John Boorman’s magnificently lush and extraordinary retelling of the legend of King Arthur and The Knights of The Round Table…EXCALIBUR.

Merlin The Magician (Nicol Williamson) has worked for many years to unite a land beset by constant warfare. To this end he has manipulated events so that Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) will receive Excalibur, The Sword of Power and become king. Uther undermines Merlin’s plans through his lust for Igraine (Katrine Boorman) the wife of his most powerful ally, Duke Cornwall (Corin Redgrave.) To this end, Merlin uses his magic to transform Uther to resemble Cornwall and Uther impregnates her. Merlin shows up nine months later to take Uther’s son, telling Uther that he is “not the one who will unite the land.” But perhaps his son will be. His son who will day be known in song and story as King Arthur. Shortly after, Uther is ambushed and killed, but not before thrusting Excalibur into a stone, proclaiming that none but a true king shall ever have Excalibur.

From there we follow Arthur (Nigel Terry) as he indeed draws Excalibur from the stone and becomes king. With the help of his foster father Sir Ector (Clive Swift) foster brother Sir Kay (Niall O’Brien) along with other knights such as Sir Leondegrance (Sir Patrick Stewart) Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson) Sir Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) and Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and with the wisdom of Merlin to guide him, Arthur does unite the land and creates The Round Table, the greatest assemblage of knights in the world. But even the paradise that is Camelot cannot stand when Arthur is betrayed by his wife Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and his best friend Lancelot who have fallen in love. Arthur’s half-sister Morgana Le Fay (Helen Mirren) uses the same sorcery Merlin used to help Uther conceive Arthur to seduce Arthur and give birth to their son Mordred (Robert Addie) whom she then raises to destroy Arthur, The Round Table, Camelot and everything they stand for. Beset by foes from without and the sickness of King Arthur from within, The Knights of The Round Table embark on the mission which will make them immortal legends: the quest for The Holy Grail.

EXCALIBUR intriguingly had its roots in a proposed production of “Lord of The Rings” John Boorman had signed on to do for United Artists. But Boorman and his co-writer Rospo Pallenberg could never figure out how to do it in anything less than a three hour movie and United Artists didn’t want to put up the money to do it. Boorman went back to the EXCALIBUR project and secured a deal to film it. Most of the set design and costuming in EXCALIBUR were originally designed for the proposed “Lord of The Rings” project.

Me, I’m happy we got EXCALIBUR instead. I’ve got friends of mine who worship at the altar of J.R.R. Tolkien and lament that Boorman never got to do his version of “Lord of The Rings” but I would have felt the same way they do if he had never got to do EXCALIBUR. I love how the movie isn’t interested in telling the historical story of King Arthur but his legend. As a result, Britain or England is never mentioned. The story takes place in “The Land.” The story doesn’t stay strictly with the traditional King Arthur legend but again, that’s okay with me. Legends are supposed to change with each retelling. And that’s why I love EXCALIBUR. It feels like a story that’s being told to me, a myth from a time out of legend.

If I have any problem with the film is that it should have been longer. There’s a lot that is skipped over and at times EXCALIBUR plays like just the highlights of the King Arthur legend. But thanks to the performance of Nicol Williamson as Merlin, the movie slows down at just the right parts to give us philosophical insights into the characters.

In fact, Nicol Williamson easily walks away with the acting honors in this movie. His Merlin is fierce, whimsical, thoughtful, wise, silly, menacing, sly and comical. Often all in the same scene. It’s a dazzling performance that has to be seen to be believed and wouldn’t be matched until Sam Neill played the role with equal skill and deftness in the 1998 TV miniseries “Merlin” And since we’re on the subject of casting, EXCALIBUR is your chance to see Sir Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and Helen Mirren all in the same movie long before they hit it big in American TV and movies. I also am extremely tickled by the performance of Clive Swift who is now probably best known for playing the henpecked Richard Bucket in the BBC sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances.” Here he gets to play a badass knight and I adore what he does with the role.

That’s not to say that John Terry, Nicholas Clay and Cherie Lunghi should be overlooked. I loved how John Terry plays an Arthur that isn’t anywhere near what we think a legend should be. He’s a man who doesn’t quite grasp his own sense of destiny. But he doesn’t run away from it. If anything, he’s a man doomed by his own desire to do the right thing. Cherie Lunghi is absolutely gorgeous and Nicholas Clay plays a man who’s the exact opposite of Arthur: he knows what his destiny is and his overwhelming desire to fulfill it is what makes him tragic.

What else can I say about EXCALIBUR? The wonderful suits of armor that none of the knights take off, not even when having sex. The conversations between Arthur and Merlin. Helen Mirren being bad. Great swordfights. The fianl conversation between Arthur and Guenevere. The extraordinary images of The Lady In The Lake holding Excalibur out of the water. The final apocalyptic battle between The Knights of The Round Table and Mordred’s army. The magnificent use of classical music by Carl Orff and Richard Wagner.

So should you see EXCALIBUR? Quite simply: Yes. The story of King Arthur, Merlin and The Knights of The Round Table has never before been told like this and this, along with the “Merlin” miniseries I mentioned earlier is without a doubt my favorite version of the legend and one of my all time favorite movies.

140 minutes

Rated R

Taken 2

2012

EuropaCorp/Canal+

Directed by Olivier Megaton

Produced by Luc Besson

Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

It would be difficult for TAKEN 2 to top 2008’s “Taken” and I think it’s a smart move on the part of all concerned that they don’t even try. Let’s take the “Die Hard” movies for an example. Each “Die Hard” is more expensive and bigger than the one before it, coming up with even more fantastic action sequences until we wind up with Bruce Willis outrunning a F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. But TAKEN 2 stays at the same level of the first movie and because it remains at that level we get action scenes that actually seem plausible. Liam Neeson, as in the first one is such a terrific action hero because he actually can act and so projects not only toughness but intelligence as well.

We pick up on Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) back in L.A. helping his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) learn how to drive and comforting his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) who is going through changes with her current husband. The husband cancels a family trip to China and Bryan offers to holiday with Lenore and Kim in Istanbul (not Constantinople) after he finishes up a job there. They take him up on his generous offer. Also in Istanbul (not Constantinople) is Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija) the father of one of the men Bryan killed during the events of the first movie. He hasn’t come alone. He’s got a lot of help. A whole lot. And their intention is simple: kidnap Bryan and take him back to their hometown in Albania so that the families of the men he killed can watch him die. It’s a bonus that Kim and Lenore are there as Murad has plans in mind for them as well. Pretty soon it’s Bryan and Lenore who have been taken and have to rely on Kim to rescue them.

Now, don’t worry…Kim doesn’t pick up a pair of guns and start blazing away at the bad guys. But she does play a pivotal part in helping her dad get away from the bad guys in what I thought was a pretty ingenious sequence. And she does get to take part in a car chase that I thought was as funny as it was thrilling since it played out as a screwed up version of an earlier driving lesson Bryan and Kim had before everything went to hell.

And as in the first one, Liam Neeson is solidly at the center. Even though I didn’t enjoy this as much as “Taken” I liked it a lot more than “Unknown.” But you know what? I’d be perfectly happy seeing Liam Neeson doing these European based thrillers for Luc Besson and young hungry directors every two or three years because they’re so dependably entertaining. They’re pulpy action adventures with just enough characterization so that we care about the people on the screen but not so much that it gets in the way of the punchy punchy run run.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect. The bit with the world’s smallest cell phone had me rolling my eyes and the hyper quick editing during the fight scenes made me groan. Especially since it looked like Liam Neeson was pulling off some pretty good moves there. The two editors on this movie get no points from me.

And as the leader of the Albanian kidnappers Rade Serbedzija isn’t much of a fearsome evil criminal mastermind. It apparently doesn’t matter to him in the least that his son kidnapped and tortured underage girl, hooking them on drugs and selling them to pervy old men. All he cares about is that his son was killed and he wants revenge.

Famke Janssen does solid supporting work here as does Maggie Grace. TAKEN 2 isn’t as surprising or on the same blow-your-mind level as “Taken.” And it doesn’t have a badass speech like the now classic “I don’t know who you are” and you know something? I’m glad the writers didn’t even try. TAKEN 2 is a cheeseburger-and-fries action thriller as professionally efficient in its storytelling as Bryan Mills is at looking for, finding and killing bad guys.

96 minutes

Rated PG-13

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Taken

2008

EuropaCorp/Canal+

Directed by Pierre Morel

Produced by Luc Besson

Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

We really shouldn’t have been surprised that Liam Neeson emerged in 2008 as an authentic action hero in TAKEN. After all, he’s been playing badasses since 1981’s “Excalibur” where he was Gawain, one of King Arthur’s Knights of The Round Table and you don’t get much more badass than that. But he played other badass characters in movies such as “The Mission” “Next of Kin” “Rob Roy” and “Gangs of New York” He’s been a superhero in 1990’s “Darkman,”  trained Bruce Wayne in “Batman Begins,” a Jedi Master in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” and put plans together as Hannibal Smith in the movie version of “The A-Team.” So Liam Neeson has earned his badass credentials legitimately. But he’s earned his reputation as an actor in more…shall we say, prestigious roles such as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Schindler’s List” Michael Collins in “Michael Collins” Alfred Kinsey in “Kinsey” “Les Miserables” and a number of well-received and well-reviewed arthouse movies.

But I think what surprised all of us is how damned good Liam Neeson is as an action hero. This is a role that Bruce Willis, Jason Statham or Samuel L. Jackson could have done in their sleep. But because Liam Neeson is doing it and treats this role with the same professionalism and talent he brought to one of his more prestigious films he elevates the entire movie. The plot is pure 1980’s action but due to Mr. Neeson’s acting choices to play his character as a man of intelligence whose near obsessive attention to detail is just as much the key to him staying alive as his lethal set of destructive talents, TAKEN gets bumped up a number of considerable notches. In its own way it’s as remarkable an action movie as the first “Die Hard” “Lethal Weapon” “The Transporter” or the movie with which it shares a somewhat similar plot: “Commando”

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has retired from the CIA’s Special Operations Group so that he can rebuild his relationship with his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) after having missed so many years away from home protecting his country. It’s not easy when Bryan’s ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) plainly would prefer it if he stays away. And Bryan can’t compete on a monetary level since Lenore’s new husband Stuart (Xander Berkeley) is obscenely wealthy. All Bryan has to offer is his time but he’s not going to be able to give her that as Kim wants go to Paris for the summer with her BFF Amanda. Supposedly the girls are going on a cultural tour of French museums but actually they’re going to be following U2 on their European tour.

Well, we all know what happens to good Caucasian American girls who don’t do what their parents say and go to foreign countries looking to drink and party and fool around with foreign boys, don’t we? They get kidnapped, of course. In the case of Kim and Amanda they’re taken by an Albanian human trafficking ring. Bryan hears the kidnapping while talking to Kim on her phone which is picked up by one of the kidnappers. Bryan tries to negotiate with the man in which Liam Neeson delivers what has to be one of The Top Ten Best Bad Ass Speeches in movie history. The man isn’t impressed and that sets up the rest of the movie which has Bryan go to Paris and with the single-minded relentlessness of a Terminator T-800 proceeds to do exactly what he told the kidnappers he was going to do: he looks for them. He finds them. And he kills them.

TAKEN became one of the surprise hits of 2008 as word-of-mouth spread and the movie got great reviews. And it’s all well deserved. I love thrillers like this that are set in Europe as the exotic, unfamiliar locations give added weight to the movie. I dunno, it’s just me but I take thrillers and spy movies more seriously when they’re set in Europe. Maybe I just like the locations. But that, along with the solid performances from all concerned adds up to one of the most exciting and entertaining action movies I’ve seen in recent years. TAKEN is an excellent example of a movie that takes something we’ve seen plenty of times in other action movies but makes it seem fresh, as if we’re seeing it for the first time and again, most of that credit goes to Liam Neeson. He’s not playing an invincible superman who walks through tons of disposable bodies to achieve his goals. We see as he methodically and ruthlessly works his way up the human trafficking food chain like the professional he is. And I really like the way he moves in the fight scenes. Neeson is no Jason Statham and wisely doesn’t try to be. I liked the effective and powerful economy of movement in his punches and blocks. It’s rare in action movies that we get heroes as smart with their heads as they are deadly with their hands and that’s the thing that makes Bryan Mills stand out.

So should you see TAKEN? What, are you kidding me? Chances are you’ve seen it already but if you haven’t then your homework assignment is to do so at your earliest opportunity. TAKEN deserves a permanent place in your home action movie library.

96 minutes

Rated PG-13

Wrath of The Titans

2012

Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

Produced by Basil Iwanyk and Polly Cohen Johnsen

Screenplay by Dan Mazeau and David Leslie Johnson

Story by Greg Berlanti

Most of my friends disowned me after my coming out in favor of the 2010 “Clash of The Titans” and my saying that I liked it a lot.  They saw my liking of the film as a betrayal of the original version that was the last movie done by stop motion visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen.  I never understand why nowadays people feel it necessary to have to like one version of a movie over another.  Can’t you like two versions of a movie for different reasons?  And one of the reasons why I liked 2010’s “Clash of The Titans” is that it wasn’t a slavish remake of the original. It took the basic story and put its own spin on it.  Much like how those ancient Greeks took the original myths and legends and every time they retold the story, they added stuff on or left stuff out they didn’t think was important.

It’s the same reason why I like WRATH OF THE TITANS.  It has many of the same characters as the previous movies and adds some new ones to change up the character interaction dynamics.  It gives Perseus a new motivation to go on an heroic quest.  It gets in what I think are some knowing, loving winks to the Harryhausen movie.  Bubo the mechanical owl makes another cameo appearance that I didn’t expect, didn’t see coming and made me laugh as the scene he appears in played out.  And like the previous movie, I was surprised that I liked it a lot more than I thought I would.

Perseus (Sam Worthington) has been living peacefully for ten years, earning his daily bread as a fisherman.  He’s been raising his son Helius (John Bell) alone as his wife Io died giving birth.  Perseus is happy with his life and says so to his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) who comes to Perseus for help.  Since men no longer pray to the gods their power is fading away and so they cannot keep imprisoned the demons kept in the underworld prison of Tartarus.  Perseus has no wish to become involved again in the business of the gods.

It’s up to Zeus, Poseidon (Danny Huston) Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Zeus’ other son Ares (Edgar Ramirez) to go down into Tartarus and fix things.  But it turns out to be a trap.  Hades and Ares have cut a deal with the imprisoned Kronos, the most powerful of The Titans: they drain Zeus’ power to free Kronos and they will be part of the new pantheon of gods once Kronos is back on top.

Poseidon gets away and gives his trident to Perseus, charging him with passing the weapon on to Poseidon’s demigod son Agenor (Toby Kebbell) Perseus goes one better. After rounding up Agenor and Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) he sets out to descend into Tartarus and rescue Zeus.  To do this he’ll need the help of Hephaestus (Bill Nighy) who constructed Tartarus and the insanely impossible labyrinth the intrepid band have to navigate and survive to reach Zeus.  And even after that, Perseus must recover two more powerful weapons to join with the Trident of Poseidon to form The Spear of Triam, the only weapon that can stop Kronos.

I really enjoyed WRATH OF THE TITANS because it’s so unpretentious.  This isn’t a movie that’s out to reinvent the genre.  Its sole purpose is to tell an entertaining adventure fantasy story for 100 minutes and I felt entertained once it was over. Rosamund Pike takes over as Andromeda from Alexa Davalos who played the role in “Clash of The Titans” and she brings a whole new energy to the role.  Which is welcome as Andromeda has much more to do in this movie, strapping on a sword and fighting right alongside Perseus.  Toby Kebbell brings some welcome humor to the adventure as the son of Poseidon who is much more of a trickster than the heir to the throne of the God of the Sea.  Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes have a lot of screen time together in this one in a really nicely performed character arc revolving around their characters that is brought to a resoundingly satisfying conclusion.  Sam Worthington appears more relaxed in this movie and allows Perseus some moments of warmth and humor and he even gets to smile.  I’ve liked Edgar Ramirez ever since seeing him in “Carlos” and he brings a good intensity to his role as Ares as if he’s been doing this kind of movie all his life.

So should you see WRATH OF THE TITANS?  If you saw the 2010 “Clash of The Titans” and didn’t like it then there’s no reason why you should want to see this one. But if like me you did enjoy it then I see no reason why you wouldn’t want to see this one.

100 minutes

PG-13