Review: Beware! Don’t be ‘Taken’ Too

Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace, grimacing over the shoddy script they must use in ‘Taken 2′

Listen to me very carefully. We don’t have much time.

In your theater there is a movie. Some very bad men have made this movie. They may be good husbands, good fathers, maybe even good actors. But they have made a movie so bad, so utterly devoid of suspense but so full of unintentional hilarity that it will stand forever in the annals of bad, bad movies.

Listen. Are you listening?

At your theater there will be a ticket counter. Walk to it. Casually. Do not attract attention. Hold your wallet in your right hand. This is important. Hold it tightly.

Walk to the counter. Avoid eye contact with the clerk.

Listen. This is vital.

THIS IS NOT A GAME!

Buy a ticket to a movie. Buy a ticket to any movie. Buy a ticket to any movie except Taken 2.

If it all goes wrong, if somehow you are discovered and they are on to you, if they come for you and make you buy a ticket to Taken 2, I want you to drop everything and run.

Are you listening?

Drop your wallet. Drop your cell phone and your keys and your iPod. Kick off your shoes, throw off your jacket. Strip down to your skivvies if you have to. Run to the nearest Canadian embassy. You’ll be safe there.

This is vitally important. It is too late for me. But there is hope for you.

Canada.

It may be cold and filled with aggressively nice people, but no one will make you watch Taken 2.

Liam Neeson has no power there.

He has no power in Taken 2, either, despite dispatching a regular stream of indistinguishable bad guys. Members of an extended – vastly extended – Albanian family, these thugs have taken offense to the previous well-deserved killing of their villainous son/grandson/brother/cousin/nephew/cousin-once-removed/next-door-neighbor-related-but-we-don’t-talk-about-how.

You see, in Taken, an actually good movie, Neeson’s Bryan Mills tracks his kidnapped daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) across Paris, slaughtering any human slime that gets in his way, including this one Albanian dude who seems to be related to each and every other Albanian on earth.

Clean. Good. Neat. A simple premise, well performed, tapping into a father’s deepest fears.

Then, in this film, for reasons that seem foolish at best, Mills takes his daughter and conveniently single again ex-wife (Famke Janssen) to, of all places, Istanbul for a little trauma recovery time. Before you can say “Hagia Sophia,” those pesky Albanians have hoods over Mama Bear and Daddy Bear’s heads are are gunning for little Goldilocks too.

Now it’s her turn to save the family.

Mills has managed to smuggle a phone into the dank, weirdly deserted Turkish warehouse in which he’s chained, and gives Kim directions in a sort of play-by-play style.

Some of those directions run like this: “Listen. This is important. I don’t have time to explain but I do have time to give agonizingly detailed instructions. [Ok. I put that part in.] Get out of the car. Walk through the bazaar. You will emerge on a street. Turn right. Go two blocks. There will be a set of stairs. Climb them. Look for a red door. Go through it. Look to your left. There will be a taxi stand. Run to it.”

Seriously. I am not making this up. You might want to bring a notepad to keep up. Or maybe Google Maps. Heck, even Apple Maps. Maybe it’s better with Istanbul than with New York City.

Better yet, however, are Daddy’s other instructions to little Kim. He’s a security expert, so he has a convenient stash of weapons available. His brilliant idea to determine his location is to have her…wait for it…THROW A GRENADE out of her hotel window.

He hears her throw, counts the seconds until the boom, and knows how far he is.

Not just once. That would be too easy.

So there’s little Kim, merrily running along the rooftops of Istanbul, lobbing grenades in random directions.

Now it is Istanbul. Heaven knows they’ve had their problems over the course of centuries. But I’m thinking someone might, oh I don’t know, notice?

Someone might just object to an American teen, all decked out in hipster flannel, BLOWING UP THEIR ROOF.

Not in this movie. Nobody bats an eye.

I could go on about the wild laughter that filled the theater when a bad guy menaced mommy with what, to the naked eye, looked to be haircutting shears, giving the impression that he just wanted to give her some light bangs, maybe a little definition around the face, as she squirms and squeals in terror.

Take my daughter if you must, but don’t touch the hair!

Or how little Kim crashes a stolen taxi through a gauntlet of United States Marines with fully automatic weapons AND their flimsily constructed guard house to arrive safely in the US Embassy.

I could go on and on.

But there isn’t time. Resist, I tell you. Resist! Once they have you in the theater, there is no rescue.

If there was any logic in the world, this is the movie that would inspire mass riots.

Home Viewing: The Grey

Bottom Line: A tense, suspenseful walk through wolf-infested Alaska that doubles as a philosophical metaphor for life and death, the film isn’t perfect but is good.

The Gist: A plane full of burly, tough oil field workers crashes in remote Alaska. Not only do they have to find a way out, but they have landed in the territory of burly, tough wolves. Liam Neeson stars as the leader of the pack, the human pack.

The Verdict: Watch it. What we say we believe in the comfort of our lives changes drasitcally when facing death. Men wrestle with wolves, but metaphorically, they’re wrestling with mortality, love, and God. Liam Nesson is fantastic. Some of the scenes are a bit unbelievable. The special effects are minimal, but director Joe Carnahan uses them to good effect. Read our review and interview with Carnahan.

Be Aware: Rated R, the film has intense, gory violence and men who talk like, well, Alaskan oil field workers.

Boxoffice: THE GREY Snarls and Claws its Way to the Top

Add wolfpuncher and boxoffice ninja to Liam Neeson’s resume. His man vs. wolf movie “The Grey” (our review here) won the box office with a respectable estimated $20 million at the boxoffice. It’s not bad for a late January release, when the traditional low quality of movies, post-holiday seriousness, and bad weather take a bite out of box office receipts.

Enough misguided souls turned out for Katherine Heigl’s “One for the Money” to make an estimated $11.7 million, despite her reputation for making flops and the horrible reviews coming in after the opening. The vampire vs. werewolf vs. human movie “Underworld Awakening” beat Heigl, making $12.5 million.

So far, “Red Tails” has made $33 million in two weeks, but the real loser of the weekend was the poorly reviewed “Man on a Ledge” which took in a paltry $8.3 million. Ouch.

I guess wolfpunching beats out fear of heights.

Box office estimates from Boxofficemojo.

Thrilling Primal and Profound Fears with “The Grey”

Civilization has, by and large, freed human beings from the fear of animal attack, but it once was an everyday primal terror of human experience. Our language still reflects this: We say the wolf is at the door, we accuse children of crying wolf, we tell the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, stalked by a wolf. Somewhere deep in our psyches lurks the knowledge that, without our secure doors and our modern weapons, we are not the top of the food chain.

“The Grey,” opening today, yanks this ancient struggle out of the subconscious and very effectively interjects it into the now, creating a gripping, thrilling movie that has more a shocking amount of insight into mortality and what we really believe about it.

Liam Nesson plays Ottway, a man who does not care if he lives or dies after the abandonment of his beloved wife. Like other men unfit for human society, he has sought the edges of the world, taking a job in Alaska shooting wolves who attack the workers in the oil fields. It’s a rough world, inhabited by coarse men with pasts and no future. As he zombie-walks through his days, he is suddenly and severely awakened by the crash of his chartered plane exactly in the middle of Alaska’s nowhere.

With a handful of survivors and little hope for rescue, no one is more shocked than Ottoway to find he has the drive to survive and to lead his band to safety.

There’s just one problem.

Another pack has scented the human interlopers in their territory. Wolves do not appreciate visitors. An epic battle begins: Wolf pack against human pack. The men have makeshift weapons (Ottaway’s rifle being lost in the crash), fire, and intelligence on their side. The wolves have tooth and claw, homefield advantage, and instinct on theirs.

The two packs are more alike than they realize, each fighting for dominance amongst themselves, each with its own version of cunning and determination. That was absolutely intended, director Joe Carnahan told me in an interview from New York. Men are, he said, as “unpredictable and as hard to map as the animal world. …Nature is wildly unpredictable and we are certainly part of that.” Read the rest of our interview here.

The movie is gripping and tense. Carnahan doesn’t show the wolves much, and occasionally when he does they seem fake, but he effectively builds tension through a howl in the darkness or a footfall barely heard. He plays with the edge of the light cast by a fire, something most of us only experience when camping, and the fear of what might be just beyond our sight in the inky blackness. A few times, only a puff of wolfbreath lit by moonlight betrays the presence of the predators.

Other times, of course, they come at the men tooth and claw, bones crunching. For this reason, and for the pervasive language that men use on the edge of the world, the movie is rated R.

In the midst of all this stalking, jumping at shadows, and sudden bloody attacks, the movie begins to ask bigger questions.

It turns out that the God Ottoway intellectually disbelieved when nursing his pain in a divey but safe bar is much more believable when either life or death is only a moment away. When facing the very real likelihood of their imminent death, the posings and rationalizings of men melt away and they are left with the essence of themselves and the things in which they believe.

Even these men of violence and uncouth manners hold light deep within them. Their lives are valuable, increasingly so as the movie goes on. The audience finds itself caring.

Liam Neeson does a fantastic job, both tough-as-nails and vulnerable. Frank Grillo almost steals the movie, however, as Diaz, a smooth talking thorn in Ottoway’s side.

I little expected a January thriller about wolves to be so gripping or moving, but like men society has rejected, movies can surprise you. If this film had opened, as it was intended to, in Toronto, I believe we’d be talking about Oscar nominations. It’s certainly better than a few of the contenders.

Interview: Director Joe Carnahan on God and spirituality in thriller “The Grey”

On the surface, “The Grey,” starring Liam Neeson, is a suspenseful and thrilling survival movie about a plane load of tough Alaskan men who crash in the wilderness.  Stalked by a pack of wild wolves, their journey towards civilization becomes an epic and harrowing battle between the human pack and the wolf pack.

However, the primal struggle takes on an almost literary quality, with both packs becoming metaphors for life, death, struggle, and spirituality. It’s like a Jack London story come to life, or perhaps a wilderness Flannery O’Connor, as the men find their beliefs about God and death, when challenged by the very real possibility of death, to be quite different than what they had believed before they boarded their doomed airplane.

I asked Joe Carnahan, the director and scriptwriter (it is an adaptation of a shorty story, “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers), if he saw echoes of Jack London or O’Connor. “I think in terms of the overall spirituality or notion of the mystic and mysterious, yeah,” he said, “There’s larger themes in play in what would otherwise be a genre or thriller, action thriller category. Those things were working hand in hand. Something like ‘Deliverance’ – I’m a fan of the film, but I’m a bigger fan of the novel – and the theme of masculinity, what it means to be a man.”

“There is that brutality in O’Connor’s work. The hostility of the world around them.  And what is your shelter, if there is a shelter.”

In one scene, Neeson’s character –who earlier denied belief in God – challenges God, demanding help or answers. It was Neeson’s idea, Carnahan says, to pause in something very like prayer and carefully arrange objects in what seems to be a cross.

That’s not to say the movie serves up easy answers. In fact, Carnahan is perfectly comfortable with ambiguity: “I think if you’re an atheist, you look at the film and you say ‘He didn’t believe in God.’ If you’re a Christian: ‘100% he believed in God.’ I like that. I that like those things coexist. I’m a hell of a lot more interested to hear people talking to me about the film than for me to be telling them about the movie.”

He also intentionally set up the wolf pack and the human pack, with their respective Alpha males, to mirror each other. Human natures is “unpredictable and as hard to map as the animal world. …Nature is wildly unpredictable and we are certainly part of that.”

How does one make a movie that so overtly examines faith and God’s role in individual lives without being preachy? Carnahan, who was raised Catholic, said, “Be open minded and available to everything and not just saying it’s Jesus Christ or bust. So much of the world will do that. I find it troubling …Don’t be dogmatic.  I don’t see how it would be possible for us to make this movie if we were closed down or myopic in any form.”

So what is the movie about? “I think it’s the contradictions that exist in all of us at times in reference to God or to spirituality or to religion in general. There’s a duality of a guy calling on God: ‘Where are you when I need you?’ and then at the same time ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ I think that contradiction does exist in all of us, those of faith and those who profess to have no faith. I just thought it had to be something that was synonymous with the story itself and what we were trying to achieve and what we’re trying to tell. It wasn’t just a simplified view of life and death. Certainly, I ask myself those questions. What’s waiting for me? What will I be? My hope, my real hope, is that whatever you hold in your heart, whatever you truly believe, and you’ve put your faith in, that that’s what ‘s waiting for you. I think that’d be wonderful. You know what I mean? I think that would be the culmination of the life of the devout, or the believer.”

“The Grey” is rated R for bloody violence and opens Friday, January 27.


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