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Friday, 15 August 2008

Taken


A good vigilante movie takes our primal thirst for revenge and plays on it for all it's worth. Judged on that basis – and that’s the only real basis for an honest judgment of this film - Taken is a very good vigilante movie indeed. Not that it sells itself to us as such: Liam Neeson’s role is simply that of a good father (with a vast array of CIA-honed skills for tracking and neutralising bad guys) who quit his job as an international tough-guy to try and win back the teenaged daughter he barely knows. The bad news is that she wants to go on holiday in Europe and he's the only one who knows (and goes on and on and on) about how dangerous Europe is for sexy teenagers; the worse news is that pretty much the second she steps off the plane all his dire predictions come true as she's kidnapped by sex slavers. The good news for audiences is that this means he promptly gets on a plane, flies to Paris, and starts bashing, torturing, and murdering everyone who he sees as standing between him and his daughter. Of course it's totally ridiculous and borderline offensive clich├ęs abound, including a return of an old favourite in the form of the Sleazy Sheik. But Neeson is always good value whatever the role and as the smouldering symbol of barely suppressed rage he’s both completely watchable and relatively believable considering he's playing an unstoppable killing machine. The action scenes are well staged and gritty (Neeson isn't a young man, but again, he's a believable arse-kicker), and there's a fairly high level of ruthlessness in his actions that keeps things from getting too stale and predictable. There's even a few moments of genuine shock as we see Neeson taking things just a little too far to get the job done. If a line exists, he'll cross it to get his daughter back; in a film like this, that's exactly what we want to see.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #433)

Saturday, 9 August 2008

The Dark Knight


As superhero movie characters go, Batman has one big problem: he beats up muggers. He does more than that, of course, but at a time when blockbuster movies are expected to feature huge amounts of jaw-dropping CGI, there's only so much you can do with a man who dresses up in a bat costume and punches out criminals. What makes The Dark Knight so good – and it's easily the best blockbuster of 2008 to date, leaving everything else fighting for second place - is that director / co-writer Christopher Nolan (back after directing Batman Begins) knows that Batman can't compete on a spectacle level with guys who can fly or turn into big green monsters, and so doesn't even try. Where Batman can compete, and where The Dark Knight triumphs so spectacularly, is on a human level. So what we get is a 150-odd minute character-based crime drama where one of the main players dresses like a bat, another is an amoral clown who likes to blow things up, and the other two are just regular guys trying to do their jobs. Not that you don’t get loads of action here too: there's at least one really good car chase, Batman gets in plenty of fist-swinging fights, and explosions are pretty much Gotham City's big tourism drawcard. But the story keeps things for the most part at a human level where characters we like strive against evil and from there it simply cranks up the tension: other superhero movies might put the world at risk but here the Joker will simply kill you dead for no good reason. That's a whole lot creepier, especially as time and time again he's successful in carrying out his murderous threats until eventually this becomes a film where you honestly don't know what's going to happen next… but it's probably going to be something bad. If that wasn't enough to keep you watching (and the plotting here is a huge improvement over the occasionally shaky Batman Begins), there are four top-notch actors in the central roles. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne / Batman might still need to work a little on the gruff Batman voice but otherwise he's rock solid as the playboy by day, crime fighter by night who this time around is starting to hope his day is done. Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Gordon is put to much better use second time around as a cop trying to hold things together and Heath Ledger is extremely good (in a very well-constructed role) as the chaos-loving Joker. Gotham's new DA Harvey Dent is in many ways the film's heart and soul, the one good man in a rotten city, and Aaron Eckhart is totally convincing in the role. The Dark Knight is a big, sprawling film, and occasionally a subplot clunks or a scene feels a little surplus to requirements. But that's part of its charm: it's a truly epic saga, and without such a grand scope the stakes wouldn't seem nearly so high.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #432)