Thriller

No Good Deed

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2014

Screen Gems

Directed by Sam Miller

Produced by Will Packer and Lee Clay

Executive Produced by Idris Elba, Taraji P. Henson, Aimee Lagos, Lindsay Williams, Gleen S. Gainor, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein and Rob Hardy

Written by Aimee Lagos

I’ve always said that true racial equality will be established in this country when black actors/filmmakers can make romantic comedies and generic thrillers as badly as their white counterparts. That’s not to say that NO GOOD DEED is altogether a bad movie. Matter of fact I was pleasantly surprised at how much of a good time I was having watching it. I was never scared for the safety of certain characters or worried that the movie wasn’t going to play out exactly the way it did. But it sure was entertaining to watch.  But here’s the thing: it’s actually a movie where the ethnicity of the characters have absolutely nothing to do with the plot. Seriously. The racial make-up of four of the main characters could be switched and have no effect on all on how the situations in the movie play out. Because in NO GOOD DEED the black characters make the same dumb mistakes white characters do and have done in similar movies that have been made for the past forty or fifty years. But since two of the main characters are played by Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson and they play their parts so well, we’re committed to seeing how this By-The-Numbers home invasion thriller plays out.

Colin Evans (Idris Elba) is a man who has…how shall I put it?…very serious issues with women. He’s the main suspect in the disappearance of five young ladies but there was no proof to put him away. What he was put away for was manslaughter, having killed a man in barroom brawl. Denied his parole he escapes while being returned to prison, killing two guards in the process.

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He then shows up at the home of Terri Granger (Taraji P. Henson) whose husband Jeffrey (Henry Simmons) is away for the weekend. Terri has tried to explain to her husband how badly she needs some adult company as she gave up her career as a lawyer to be a full-time stay at home mom, taking care of the infant Sam and young daughter Ryan.  It’s a plea that falls on deaf ears. But her best friend Meg (Leslie Bibb) offers to come by for a girls night and is surprised to find Colin there. Terri explains that Colin had a car accident and is waiting for a tow truck. It doesn’t take long before Terri thinks that maybe there’s something really wrong with her unexpected houseguest. Little things like the phone lines being cut…all the knives in the kitchen knife set block disappearing…and then Meg herself disappearing…

If you’ve been watching movies as long as I have then there’s not a single blessed thing in NO GOOD DEED that is going to surprise you. Well, maybe one thing that I wouldn’t dream of giving away. But on the whole this is a pretty standard thriller that is elevated by the performances of Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson. Who must have had some kind of deal with the cameraman as I cannot remember the last time I’ve seen a movie where the leading lady had so many gratuitous butt shots. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. But if you go see the movie, count the number of times you get a shot of Ms. Henson’s derriere for apparently no reason at all and then tell me I’m wrong.

The game of cat-and-mouse between Elba and Henson is highly interesting just on the strength of their considerable acting ability. Elba does curiously stimulating things with the conversations he initiates with Henson that appeals to this attention deprived woman.  I gotta admit that I watched in grudging admiration how this seriously deranged man is able to be charming and personable enough to be able to talk his way into this woman’s house. A woman who due to her background should know better than anybody else why you should never let a stranger into your house.

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Once the ante is upped and all the pretense between them dropped the movie then really gets going in an unexpected direction that will have you wondering exactly why the Idris Elba character is doing the things he’s doing but here comes that plot twist and the one “Ah-HA!” in the entire movie.

So should you see NO GOOD DEED? If you go see it, trust me that you’re not going to see it for deep characterization. The movie is a wonderfully lean 84 minutes which means that there is absolutely no fat on it at all. There’s just enough characterization to keep the movie’s plot going and that’s all the movie is: pure plot. Not that that’s a bad thing. A McDonald’s cheeseburger is designed to be a McDonald’s cheeseburger and no more. So it’s stupid to complain that it’s not a White Castle murderburger. If you want a White Castle murderburger then go to White Castle. NO GOOD DEED is designed to be an entertaining time waster, no more, no less. So don’t go in expecting it to be “Night of The Hunter” or “Wait Until Dark.”  But what enriches it and gives it an extra shot of adrenaline are the performances of Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson and they do their jobs exceptionally well and made this one worth my time and money.

Taraji P Henson, Taraji P Henson

Rated PG-13

84 Minutes

The Baby

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1973

Quintet Productions

Directed by Ted Post

Produced by Abe Polsky, Milton Polsky and Elliott Feinman

Written by Abe Polsky

I am so thankful and grateful that I live in a world where movies like THE BABY were once made. There is absolutely no way on God’s green Earth that THE BABY could have been made today. It’s a movie that is so totally and absolutely batshit insane that even while you’re watching it you honestly can’t believe what you’re watching. And I do not exaggerate, trust me. Just when you think THE BABY can’t get any crazier it ups the ante and gets crazier. And the last fifteen minutes of the movie finishes up the job of blowing what few fuses are left intact in your brain.

Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) is an earnest, well-meaning social worker who is assigned a new case involving the Wadsworth family. There’s Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) and her two daughters: Germaine (Mariana Hill) and Alba (Suzanne Zenor). And then there’s the youngest and strangest member of the Wadsworth family. Baby (David Manzy) is a mentally impaired man in his early twenties who mind is still that of an infant and so he acts as such. The behavior is strongly reinforced by his mother and sisters who treat him as such. His mother never even bothered giving him a proper name and so everybody calls him “Baby.” He sleeps in an oversized crib and crawls around on hands and knees just like….well, just like a baby. And yeah, I know what you’re thinking: that doesn’t seem very creepy or horrific. You just go ahead and watch the movie and then try and tell me that, cousin. David Manzy is a guy who throws himself into his role so well you may end up like me, wondering exactly what he did to prepare for the role.

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Ann takes a special interest in the case, thinking that if Baby has proper training and treatment in the proper facility he can start acting older and more appropriate for his age. No, he’ll never be a “Jeopardy” contestant but at least he won’t be wearing a diaper. Seeing as how she and her daughters are getting a nice chunk of change from the state for Baby’s welfare, Mrs. Wadsworth has a solid reason for keeping Baby exactly the way he is. In addition, Alba gets her kicks from torturing her little brother with a cattle prod while Germaine likes to sneak into Baby’s giant sized crib at night to play Doctor.

But Ann is determined to get Baby the help he needs and gradually it dawns on us that Ann is just a little too determined. It doesn’t take Mrs. Wadsworth long to pick up on the fact that Ann has her own agenda for Baby. One that doesn’t include the Wadsworths.

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In a very weird ass way, THE BABY is a woman’s picture. A cracked woman’s picture, I grant you. Compared to the chicks in this movie, Joan Crawford and Betty Davis in “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane” come off as being almost downright reasonable in their behavior. The few men in this movie are totally ineffectual and useless. I’m sure those of you with a psychological bent could make something out of the fact that the movie comes down to a bunch of women fighting for control of a man who is an infant and can’t take care of himself. Me, I take it as a superior psychological thriller with some surprisingly good performances.

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The production values are also better than you would expect from a movie of such sleaze and exploitation but that’s part of the reason why I love THE BABY so much. It looks much better than it had to and the actors treat the material with a respect and seriousness I didn’t expect. They’re committed to the story, no matter how WTF it is and it shows and that gives the truly surprising conclusion an added wallop to the gut.

So should you see THE BABY? Without a doubt. This is definitely one of those movies that goes on the You Have To See It To Believe It list. It would make an excellent Saturday night double feature with that king of WTF movies; “The Apple.” Enjoy.

PG

84 minutes

The General’s Daughter and Arlington Road

So I’m going through this big blue notebook that I have on my desk that’s stuffed with character profiles, fragments of stories, research on technology and locations for future stories, character names, scraps of ideas for stories I’ll most likely never live long enough to write.  Every so often I’ll make an attempt to try and clear away some of the dead wood.  It’s a continual exercise in futility because I rarely throw away anything I’ve written because sooner or later it gets recycled into other stories.  And that includes the first two movie reviews I ever wrote.

Back around 1997/1998 we didn’t have a computer.  Instead, Patricia and I shared a WebTV that was an Internet access device that worked through your TV.  You plugged it into your phone line and voila, you were able to surf the web, send and receive emails, all that good stuff.  It wasn’t a computer but it was a good way for novices like us to get our feet wet as far as The Internet was concerned.

And it was by means of WebTV that I created the first version of “Derrick Ferguson’s Notebook” which was a website that mostly consisted of comic book reviews, television shows reviews…and oh, yes…movie reviews as well.

So I thought it would be fun for me to present here the very first two movie reviews I wrote.  After all, they’re sitting around not doing anything and I’ve already told you how much I hate waste.  I was tempted to rewrite them but that wouldn’t be fair at all and not nearly as interesting.  The only thing I’ve cleaned up is the grammar and spelling so 95% of what you’re about to read is unchanged from the day I wrote them around sixteen or so years ago.  Enjoy.

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THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER

1999

Paramount Pictures

Directed by Simon West

Produced by Mace Neufeld

Screenplay by Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman

Based on the novel ‘The General’s Daughter’ by Nelson DeMille

THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER is a murder mystery set on an Army base.  Warrant Officer Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is an investigator in The Army’s Criminal Investigations Division.  He’s kinda like an Internal Affairs cop, only for the military.  When he’s on a case he can question Colonels, Generals, anybody he pleases and rank doesn’t matter.  And it’s a good thing for him since his latest case involves the horrifying brutal death of Captain Elizabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson) and Brenner’s quest to find her killer will bring him into contact with some very top brass.

Captain Campbell is the daughter of General Joseph Campbell (James Cromwell) and daughter dear was inconsiderate enough to get herself murdered just as The General is contemplating entering the political arena since he’s practically been promised the Vice-Presidency.

Brenner is assigned to the case by The General himself and told he has 36 hours to find her killer because after that it’s in the hands of The FBI.  The General’s loyal aide, Colonel George Fowler (Clarence Williams III) gives Brenner some advice on how to proceed with his case: “There’s three ways of doing things.  The right way, the wrong way and The Army way.  I trust you’ll know which way to go on this.”

Brenner acquires a partner, Warrant Officer Sara Sunhill and they begin the investigation into Elizabeth Campbell’s murder and the more they find out about her, they more they begin to suspect that the solution of the crime may be more frightening than the crime itself.

What exactly was Captain Elizabeth Campbell’s job in the Army’s Psychological Operations Division?  What kind of relationship did she have with her superior, Colonel Robert Moore (James Woods)?  What could have happened to Elizabeth in her last year at West Point that caused her psychiatric evaluation records to be sealed?

I liked THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER right from the start and it held my attention right up to the end.  There’s some good plot twists and I’m hoping that our military leaders aren’t as twisted in real life as the movie makes them out to be.

The cast has a good time with their roles, especially Travolta, Cromwell, Woods and Williams.  Travolta’s Brenner is a guy who’s shockingly good at his job and he obviously enjoys using his C.I.D clout to bring the big brass down a peg or two.  Travolta has a scene with Woods where they verbally joust, using their wits like rapiers in a psychological duel that’s just as suspenseful as a well-choreographed fistfight.  And James Cromwell does an excellent job as The General.  A good mystery well worth the time and rental fee.

116 minutes

Rated R

 

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ARLINGTON ROAD

Directed by Mark Pellington

Produced by Tom Gorai, Marc Samuelson and Peter Samuelson

Written by Ehren Kruger

First off I have to warn you about two things concerning ARLINGTON ROAD.  One: it’s a slow starting movie and you may spend the first forty minutes or so wondering when something’s gonna happen.  Do yourself a favor and keep watching.  Two: pay attention to what does happen because when you get to the shocking, jaw-dropping ending, everything that has come before clicks into place like a Rubik’s Cube and all the colors are there right where they’re supposed to be.

Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) lives and works in Washington, D.C. where he teaches a class on Domestic Terrorism at the local university.  He’s raising his nine-year-old son and dating Brooke Wolfe (Hope Davis) one of his graduate students.  Faraday’s still trying to get over the death of his wife, an FBI agent killed in action.  The FBI got hold of some bad information concerning an extremist group stockpiling weapons and Faraday’s wife paid for it with her life.

Through an action involving the son of his neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) Faraday becomes friends with Oliver and soon they’re sitting in Oliver’s backyard, drinkin’ beer, and kickin’ the willy bobo about terrorism, bombs and how screwed up the government is.  Y’know, regular backyard talk.

Faraday’s FBI friend Whit Carver (Robert Gossett) is glad Faraday is coming out of his shell through his relationship with Brooke and The Langs and Faraday himself is liking the way his life is going a lot.  Until he notices those blueprints of downtown D.C. office buildings that Oliver has lying around.  It’s probably nothing but Faraday’s paranoid has been reawakened and he does some checking on Oliver’s background.  And he discovers that Oliver changed his name years ago because he tried to blow up a government building in Kansas when he was just 17.  Faraday starts thinking and while he doesn’t like what he’s thinking he can’t ignore the very real possibility that Oliver Lang may be planning a new act of domestic terrorism.

Is Lang really planning a terrorist bombing or is Faraday just being a really, really nosy neighbor?  It’s a lot like Warren Beatty 1974 conspiracy classic “The Parallax View” in which you’re never sure what’s true and what’s not.  At least not until the ending and ARLINGTON ROAD has some ending.

I really can’t go into any more detail because ARLINGTON ROAD depends so much on the mood of paranoia it generates and I don’t want to spoil it for anybody who decides they might want to rent it.  Jeff Bridges doesn’t play a superhero that grabs a machine gun in each hand and sets out to stop the terrorists single-handedly.  He makes mistakes.  He jumps to conclusions with nothing to go on.  He can’t get anyone to listen to him or believe him.  He’s confused and scared and panicked that he might have placed the lives of his son and the woman he loves in danger.  More than anything else, he’s afraid that more innocent people are going to die and he can’t do anything to stop it.  He’s a man whose terrible loss is a weakness that allows him to be twisted and manipulated in such a way that really took me by surprise.

I can’t let the great performances of Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack go without a comment.  Robbins is the perfect next-door neighbor.  Always helpful.  Always smiling.  Just think twice when he offers to take your kid camping.  And Joan Cusack manages to be both creepy and funny at the same time.  She’s like the ultimate Stepford Wife, smiling and baking cookies while sweetly planning murder and mayhem.  I was shocked out of my seat twice and both times it was because of Joan Cusack.

ARLINGTON ROAD.  Watch it.  Then watch your neighbors.

117 minutes

Rated R

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sabotage

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2014

Albert S. Ruddy Productions

Directed by David Ayer

Produced by Bill Block, David Ayer, Ethan Smith, Paul Hanson and Palek Patel

Written by Skip Woods and David Ayer

I’m going to put my neck out there and say that I truly and honestly admire Arnold Schwarzenegger for what he does in SABOTAGE. This is a Schwarzenegger who realizes that he would look downright silly trying to do the same kind of action movie he did back in the 1980’s. He can’t be the One Man Army Killing Machine anymore. Sure, he’s still in better shape than 90% of us but he’s no kid anymore. And he doesn’t try to hide it unlike the other two members of The Holy Trinity of Action Movie Heroes. Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis are still trying to convince us they’re still able to pull off stunts they did 30 years ago. But not Schwarzenegger.  He’s got respect for our intelligence. Oh, he still does physical stuff but nothing like the stunts he did in say, “Commando” or “Eraser” These days he’s relying a lot more on story, characterization and supporting casts to give his movies weight.

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SABOTAGE isn’t a movie he could have made back in the 1980’s. He had to wait until now to make a movie like this where he could make his age work for him and for the character he plays. Don’t get me wrong…this isn’t Schwarzenegger doing Hamlet (and I still say he should have done it. Who in their right mind wouldn’t pay to see that?) but he certainly doesn’t embarrass himself.

John “Breacher” Warthon (Arnold Schwarzenegger) ramrods an elite team of wildass DEA agents. These agents are just one notch above being full blown renegades. A couple of them (Sam Worthington and Max Martini) appear to have severe psychological issues while Lizzie (Mireille Enos) is the team’s loose cannon, brazenly flaunting her drug habit and sexual promiscuity in the faces of her boss, her teammates and her husband (Worthington)

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During a raid on a cartel safehouse, Breacher and his team help themselves to $10 million of the cartel’s money and blow up the rest to cover their theft. They hide the $10 million but when they go to recover it, they’re pissed off beyond words to find it’s gone. In the meantime, the DEA has somehow found out about the stolen money. Breacher is put on a desk job and his team suspended pending an investigation. Six months later and with no concrete evidence tying them to the money, Breacher and his team are reinstated.

Turns out that isn’t a favor at all as a couple of team members are gruesomely killed and there’s only two possibilities: either the cartel is killing off Breacher’s team in revenge for stealing their money or it’s a team member who is killing his (or her) partners to keep all the money for themselves. Either way, Breacher’s stuck in the middle. Unable to trust his team or the DEA, he has to rely on the help of Investigator Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) the homicide cop assigned to the case. But can Inspector Brentwood trust Breacher? Because during the course of her investigation she discovers that Breacher just may have more motivation than anybody else on his team to steal and kill for the money.

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By now you should have tumbled to the fact that Schwarzenegger isn’t playing his usual good guy. In fact, this may be the closest we’ll get to see him playing a bad guy as Breacher nor his team are likeable characters. In fact, they’re all really not much better than the criminals they go after. But that’s okay by me. I don’t need my characters to be likeable. As long as I understand their motivations for doing what they do, I’m cool.

The supporting cast in SABOTAGE is an unusually strong one for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and yet another sign that you’re not getting your usual Schwarzenegger Shoot-Em-Up. Terrence Howard and Josh Holloway are members of Breacher’s team while Harold Perrineau is a cop partnered with Brentwood and provides the movie with much needed comedy relief. Believe it or not, it’s Sam Worthington who walks off with the acting honors in this movie as well as Mireille Enos. Their characters are complicated enough to deserve a movie of their own. They’re married DEA agents who have long ago surrendered to corruption and spiritual degradation in the pursuit of justice. Mirelle Enos just about steals the movie from everybody in sight during the third act.

What else? Oh, the violence…seriously, this just may be the most violent movie Schwarzenegger has made and considering his track record, that’s really saying something. Director David Ayer is not interested in cartoon violence or the glorification of it. The violence in SABOTAGE is amazingly cruel, bloody and horrifically messy. And Schwarzenegger has got quite the potty mouth as well. I gave up counting after his twentieth F-bomb.

So should you see SABOTAGE? If you’re a longtime Arnold Schwarzenegger fan like me you probably already have. But if you haven’t, give it a chance. It’s not his usual action movie and has far more of a mystery thriller aspect than the trailers would lead you to think. I appreciate him always trying to expand the range of what he can do in films and I think that with movies like this and “Escape Plan” in which he also played a different kind of character than we’re used to seeing, he’s showing that Arnold Schwarzenegger still has a lot to offer us.

109 minutes

Rated R

 

Duel

1971

Universal Studios

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Produced by George Eckstein

Written by Richard Matheson

Before we get into the actual review a brief history lesson: The Made-For-TV Movie is a phrase you don’t hear much these days but it was used all the time back in the 1960’s and especially during the 1970’s when ABC, CBS and NBC who at that time were The Big Three of programming got into the business of producing their own movies specifically made for a television audience and tailored for 90 minute prime time broadcast television viewing slots. Which meant that no longer did they have to rely on movies they purchased from Hollywood movie studios. Now all three networks had their own special movie night but the one that most people remember is the “ABC Movie Of The Week” which aired from 1969 to 1976 on Tuesday nights. ABC had other movies nights such as their Sunday Night Movie but those were generally theatrical features. And of course there was the long-running and classic “The 4:30 Movie” which had an opening credit that was so popular it eventually was adopted as the opening for all of ABC’s late night movies:

And then of course there’s the opening for The Tuesday Night Movies itself:

Now, yes, most of ABC’s Tuesday Movie Of The Week’s movies were forgettable, disposal entertainment.  Many TV series such as “The Six Million Dollar Man” “Alias Smith and Jones” “The Immortal” and “Starsky and Hutch” made their debut as 90 minute pilot films here. And then you had a whole truckload of movies that are still remembered and indeed have become legendary in pop entertainment culture. “The Love War” “Brian’s Song” which is still hailed today as one of the best football movies ever made and a movie that guys unashamedly admit they cry when they watch it. “A Cold Night’s Death” which is a movie that screams to be remade. “The Legend of Lizzie Borden” starring Elizabeth Montgomery. “Get Christie Love!” “Bad Ronald” “Haunts Of The Very Rich” And then there’s the movie we’re going to talk about now: DUEL, which along with “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” comprises The Holy Trinity of Made-For-TV horror movies.

DUEL is a Made-For-TV Movie with the most interesting history of any Made-For-TV Movie. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Richard Matheson, based on his short story originally published in Playboy. The movie was only Steven Spielberg’s second feature-length directing job and the movie proved to be such a critical success and ratings hit that Universal asked Spielberg to spend a couple of days filming additional scenes and it was then released to theaters overseas where it played to sold-out audiences. Then, amazingly, Universal released DUEL theatrically in some venues here in the United States. This was an unheard of event back in those days and Universal was rewarded with DUEL going on to make a very respectable profit in its limited U.S. theatrical run.

But it’s no surprise to me why the movie has gone on to earn the reputation it has. Next to “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” DUEL is probably the best known Made-For-TV Movie of all time and rightly so. It’s a white-knuckle thriller that taps into the deepest fear of any motorist on the highway. I know that for me, DUEL is a movie that represents one of my worst nightmares. A movie like “Saw” doesn’t scare me at all because there is zero chance of me being forced to play some bizarre game by a hyper-intelligent serial killer. But there’s every chance I can innocently piss off some maniac behind the wheel of a truck and without meaning to find myself engaged in a life or death battle on a highway.

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) starts out his day peacefully enough. He’s a salesman, driving on his way to an important business meeting. In a wonderful bit of characterization, during a phone conversation with his wife (Jacqueline Scott) we learn that David actively works at avoiding confrontation, a personality trait that greatly factors into what happens to him during the course of his horrifying day.

During his drive he encounters a tanker truck driving slower than the posted speed limit. David passes the truck and thinks no more of it. But after a stop at a gas station he is passed by the same truck which gets in front of him and again slows down. David again passes the truck and the truck’s driver (who we never see) appears to take umbrage with this as he first tries to trick David into a collision with another vehicle. The truck’s driver continually ups the ante of this deadly game, chasing David down the highway, trying to push his vehicle into the path of a passing freight train. As this long day goes on, David cannot escape the fact that the driver of the truck is trying to kill him and if David wants to survive he is going to have to stop running and confront his unseen enemy.

And eventually it does come down to just David and the truck driver. David cannot convince anybody he meets along the road that this man is trying to kill him. Taken from a psychological point of view, the truck represents David’s fear of confrontation that is relentlessly pursuing him, forcing him to make a stand and fight for what his important to him. In this case: his life.

But you can throw that psychological stuff out the window. Taken purely as a horror movie, DUEL delivers on every level. Dennis Weaver gives an Academy Award level performance. He’s on screen for the entire running time of the movie and he is just flat out terrific. He is never less than totally convincing as this perfectly regular guy caught up in a situation way over his head, caught up in a deadly road game with a serial killer and no idea of how he’s going to survive.

So should you see DUEL? Absolutely YES. DUEL is an absolute masterpiece of suspense on all levels. You can see echoes of Spielberg’s later work on “Jaws” in this movie and the story by Richard Matheson is so tight it hurts. You used to be able to watch the entire movie on YouTube but it’s been taken down. No matter, it’s available on DVD from Amazon and I’m sure that if you ask nicely, The Internet Fairy can help you out.

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