The advent of Christmas movies

It’s that time of year again, when people of all nations come together to eat gargantuan portions of food and win Academy Awards for present-opening reactions; a time when you can’t escape the ostentatious parade of brand names and possible presents; and, indeed, a time when the special edition of the Radio Times reliably informs us of all the Christmas movies on offer this season. But with everything from high-budgeted action to TV-film corniness, my question is: what are some of the best (and worst) Christmas movies, and do Christmas movies in general ever have a chance of surviving outside of their two-month slot?

It’s sad to say that over the Christmas period, quite often, I find it difficult to use the television, because it is often occupied with these horrible C-List American TV movies that are entirely devoid of charm but which certain members of my family insist on watching. Take, for example, the title-tells-you-all Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus, which stars Police Academy‘s Steve Guttenburg as a soon-to-be Santa who, er, happens to be seeking a Mrs. Claus. I caught five minutes of the atrocious ending and was genuinely terrified. Guttenburg, over the course of the movie, indeed finds his wife, but at the point I joined he had separated from her for some soap-opera reason or another (you know how it goes). But in the end… he returns! Though in a thoroughly disquieting fashion. As actress Crystal Bernard (who?) bounds down the steps to see what Santa has brought her son this year, she discovers Guttenburg – sitting in a chair in Santa suit, smiling eerily, as if he has been up all night, waiting for her to descend the stairs so he can pounce and sink his claws into her neck. I don’t know if it is just me but I thought that this scene was one of the finest examples of cinematic weirdness since David Lynch baffled us all with Mulholland Drive, and the image still haunts me to this day (safe to say, I haven’t watched the rest of the film).

I'm positively quaking...
I’m quaking…

Also occupying the less brilliant side of the scale of Christmas movies is Home Alone 2. Now, I’ll admit, I loved the original and its billion sequels a lot when I was younger, laughing gleefully at the slapstick humour and wit of its tiny protagonist, Kevin McAllister. I wondered after seeing Home Alone 2 on TV this afternoon just how strangely warped my child mind must have been to enjoy it. It wasn’t the silly sentimentality or even the unusual length of two hours that caused me to recoil this time round. Surprisingly, it was exactly what attracted me to the film in the first place, the final sequence, where the hapless and brainless Harry and Marv try to catch the young Kevin as he disappears into an unfinished house, only to be subjected to the various traps that have been laid out for them. So far, so good – except the traps in the first film were actually funny. Here, they are downright sadistic. That’s right, there’s brick-throwing, explosives, an overwhelming barrage of heavy objects being ceremoniously dumped on heads, electric shocks, and spillage of paint. If movies actually told the truth, then poor Harry and Marv would have been dead before they even got into the house. We eventually get to a point where we want the criminals to succeed, and for Kevin to either be thrown off the building or sent to a mental hospital where he’ll sit in a corner, deliriously hatching new plans, for the rest of his life, so he won’t ever appear in a film again and, crucially, won’t miss any more stupid planes.

Don't you just want to punch his little face?
The psychologists would have a field day…

Did I enjoy this Christmas fluff? Well, no. Would they bear viewing in, say, June? Certainly not. What then, are the best Christmas movies, the ones that are worth watching, and the ones that do bear viewing in any season? There may be many, but I just want to give two of my favourites to counteract the two already mentioned: Gremlins and Die Hard. 

First to Gremlins, which is a genuinely fantastic horror-comedy from director Joe Dante. If you haven’t seen the film, then you must have heard of the all-important rules regarding the initially cuddly creatures of which the young Billy is gifted early on in the film: 1. Don’t get it wet. 2. Keep it away from sunlight 3. Whatever you do, don’t ever, EVER feed it after Midnight. Unfortunately, Billy betrays all three of these rules and suddenly finds legions of malevolent monsters swarming the town. I love the way that the film utterly destroys the idyllic scene of small-town America as the cackling devils take over cars, invade bars and, every once in a while, actually kill someone. I also loved its ability to be both hilariously funny and unusually dark in places; there are laughs, but they are interspersed with crazy violence and one pretty depressing story related by one of the supporting characters that explains her dislike of the Christmas period. Watching that scene now almost makes me want to laugh. Perhaps that’s what I love best about Gremlins – it’s not just gloriously entertaining but it gleefully subverts typical ideas about a Christmas movie with a savagery not unlike that of the puppet monsters. (Incidentally, the puppetry is amazing, and the film is worth seeing for that alone.)

Who DOES go carol singing these days?
Who DOES go carol singing these days?

And now to Die Hard. Perhaps the most obvious indicator of how astonishingly good this film is is the fact that the first time I saw it was not at Christmas, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it better. In case you didn’t already know, it’s the explosive story of what happens when John McClane, a New York Police Officer, comes to visit his estranged wife in Los Angeles for a Christmas party; the colossal office building is taken over by European terrorists while John is in the bathroom, and it is up to him to thwart these foreign villains and rescue the hostages – even though he’s not even wearing shoes. Like GremlinsDie Hard benefits from its humour, but also from its terrific performances, particularly from Bruce Willis, the perfect deliverer of one-liners, and Alan Rickman, who could not be more charismatic as the leader of the operation. But what do we really watch Die Hard for? The action! There is only one location, and the filmmakers certainly make the most of it; the fact that the triumphant and massive explosion of the lower section of the building was carried out for real (not CGI) only adds to the sense of awe. But is it a Christmas movie? Well, it takes place over the season, and it is certainly a Christmas tradition in my house to watch Die Hard every December. After all, nothing spells out peace and goodwill to all men than a sweaty middle-aged man in a vest with a receding hairline firing round upon round at a group of Euro-villains.

John feels the squalor of student living after paying his tuition fees.
John feels the squalor of student living after paying his tuition fees.

There’s no question that there are some excellent films which use Christmas as an important plot device: It’s a Wonderful Life, for example, or any decent version of A Christmas Carol. But I think that many of the best Christmas movies really aren’t very much about Christmas. They could take place around the season, and therefore could be seen accordingly, but would be appreciated equally in any month of the year. So, if you ever feel weighed down by trashy movies this December that are designed to lift your spirits but do exactly the opposite, just remember that there is still hope – make sure you have DVDs of Gremlins and Die Hard just in case. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas indeed.

Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Please note: on first viewing I saw the film in a Digital IMAX 3D print in the lower frame rate of 24fps (trust me, it matters.)

2012, 169 mins, 12A, Dir. Peter Jackson, starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage and Ken Stott

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Like a lot of people, I hungrily anticipated Peter Jackson’s film version of The Hobbit from the start, right through from its director confusion to its casting decisions to the announcement that the whole thing would be split into two… no, three films! I managed to read the book, which was even more imaginative, colourful and witty than I could have imagined (roll on The Lord of the Rings). A lot was building on this film, and I am more than satisfied to say that, even in the wake of some negative critical response, it delivers – perhaps not in the neatest way, but it doesn’t disappoint.

An Unexpected Journey is the first of a trilogy that follows the exploits of Bilbo Baggins, a quiet and conservative Hobbit who would much rather be at home consuming tea and scones than going on an adventure with the wizard Gandalf and thirteen unpredictable dwarves. As it turns out, however, that is exactly what happens, and Bilbo finds himself up against Goblins, Orcs, trolls and a thin, intimidating creature by the name of Gollum. At least, that’s what happens in this film; there’s still a plethora of strangely shaped monsters and enemies to come, including the formidable and cunning dragon Smaug. We begin, much like The Fellowship of the Ring, with a lengthy prologue that explains the current situation of Middle-Earth with some truly fiery special effects; then we’re transported to an aged Bilbo whiling away his time in The Shire; he decides to record what has happened in his life for the sake of his son Frodo, and this is where our journey begins.

The decision to expand into three films was controversial at first; while the Lord of the Rings trilogy came from source material that was much broader and certainly not lacking in detail, The Hobbit is a relatively short children’s novel that arguably contains only enough set-pieces for one (or certainly two) films. What Peter Jackson has decided to do is incorporate other elements from Middle-Earth, from The Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien’s lengthy appendices at the end of Return of the King. The effect isn’t overwhelmingly positive. In fact, in certain parts of the narrative we certainly feel distanced from the main character and his story as Jackson scrambles to put in references to Tolkien’s world and characters; one scene of dialogue in Rivendell simply goes on for far too long. How you respond to that could very well depend on how much you’ve been looking forward to the film; certain critics have dealt with this inconsistency very harshly. But I think that there is more than enough in An Unexpected Journey that outweighs the problems with the plot.

Firstly, the casting. Martin Freeman is simply a joy to watch as Bilbo, fussing around hilariously when the dwarves first arrive in his home and later making for a truly believable hero. We have Peter Jackson to thank for waiting long enough for Freeman to become available for the film – indeed, it seems little likely that anyone else could fill his role so effectively. Though Ian McKellen’s role as Gandalf is less demanding and perhaps less interesting here, he is still a delight to watch. The dwarves also fare very well. The director arguably misses a trick by not introducing them all individually, something that certainly could have been achieved in place of another longer, pondering scene of which there are a few; it is a shame that the tiny quirks, like the random axe buried in Bifur’s head, are not dwelled on particularly. Oh well. The major dwarves are characterised reasonably well and there is more opportunity to do so in the future installments.

Bilbo with Bifur, Dwalin, Bofur and Oin (OK, I suppose the axe is sort-of noticeable…)

I also loved its humour. An Unexpected Journey has darker elements but it doesn’t ultimately disguise the fact that it is based on a children’s book, and there is plenty of physical comedy involving the dwarves, much of it revolving around the fattest of them, Bombur. The design of the characters also lends to this lighter mentality – the dwarves all have rather incredible moustaches and beards, the trolls retain their slightly cockney accents, and the Great Goblin has a chin that extends to his stomach and happens to be played by Barry Humphries (the Goblin, not the chin). How brilliant is that?

It also happens to be absolutely stunning in terms of its visuals. As if we would expect anything else from Peter Jackson – the worlds he creates (with Tolkien influence, of course) are astonishing to behold. Rivendell, once again, is beautiful to look at, while the escape scene in the Goblin Kingdom is so perfectly orchestrated it left me literally salivating for more. Who could forget, however, a quieter but pretty integral part involving riddles duelled in a dark cave? Gollum is once again vividly realised by Andy Serkis and his scene with Bilbo is arguably the greatest in the film, as it is in the book. While what’s onscreen is ravishing, how the film is presented is a different matter. I cannot comment on the impact of the new frame rate of 48fps because I simply didn’t see it in that format. I will say that I was very annoyed by the 3D in my showing, especially in IMAX; light from the screen caused very distracting reflections on my oversized glasses – for very little visible 3D effect, it was frustrating. If you’re going to see this film (and I heartily advise you should), see it in 2D to get the most out of it.

Jackson is pretty faithful to the original book. The chronology is similar and a lot of the scenes play out as I imagined them (although my mother did complain that the scene with the trolls wasn’t long enough). The songs sung by the dwarves early on in the book are not forgotten, and the director even uses Tolkien’s brief reference to rock giants as a basis for an entire set-piece that may be unnecessary but sure is fun to watch. But it’s also similar in spirit, as I’ve discussed above. The Lord of the Rings is much darker and more adult and complex, like its source material; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may have less to justify its length (and follow-ups), but it’s hard not to like. Aided by some terrific performances and visuals, Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-Earth is nothing more and nothing less than a triumph, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.

8/10

The gaping beauty of Rivendell as portrayed by Peter Jackson.
The gaping beauty of Rivendell as portrayed by Peter Jackson.

(On a side note, it was enthralling to see the return of the fanbase-Christened Figwit (as portrayed by Bret McKenzie for three seconds in The Fellowship of the Ring) in the new film; read about him here. You won’t regret it, honestly.)

Review – Argo

Review – Argo

2012, 120 mins, 15, Dir. Ben Affleck, starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston and John Goodman.

Argo

Argo is Ben Affleck’s third film as a director. Having not seen his previous two, and having heard nothing but abuse related to his acting career (especially when teaming up with Michael Bay), I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But I was pleasantly surprised – Argo turns out to be a taut and intriguing slice of recent history, a thriller which takes a few liberties but has a wicked sense of humour which balances that out.

The film begins with a sequence that explains the situation in Iran in the late 1970s, which is where much of the film takes place. The USA and Britain in 1953 overthrow Iran’s Prime Minister in response to the nationalisation of the oil industry, and the Shah (or King) takes over, crushing all forms of political opposition. Two decades later there are mass protests; the Shah flees, but crowds swarm on the US Embassy. Many of the American diplomats are taken hostage, but six escape and are taken in by the Canadian Embassy. It is the job of Tony Mendez, a CIA Operative, to get them out, and he initiates a very unexpected plan; make the group pretend they are a Canadian film crew scouting for locations for a science-fiction film. It sounds almost ludicrous, and yet as fellow CIA Operative Jack O’Donnell says in the film, ‘It’s the best bad idea we have.’

Perhaps the main reason why Argo is so enjoyable is that it’s so funny. Screenwriter Chris Terrio uses the ridiculousness of the plan to craft some genuinely funny lines about the Hollywood film industry, which features prominently in Mendez’ preparation. John Chambers is his Hollywood guru, a true-life make-up artist who worked on Planet of the Apes, and satisfyingly portrayed by John Goodman. Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, is the disgruntled and aged film director, past his prime, enlisted to add his name to the fake project. It is he who has some of the best dialogue: ‘If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.’

But it is also pacy and well-directed. There are more than a few sequences in the film which keep you on edge, the imposing Iranian officials casting a shadow of doubt over the fates of the diplomats. Affleck is a great director of tension, but it is not just edge-of-your-seat stuff that he excels in. He shows attention to detail, whether it’s the nail on the wall of the Iranian Minister for Culture that once held an (absent) picture of the overthrown Shah, or the camera angles which so faithfully recreate photographs taken in revolutionary Iran. He’s also good with actors, and gets great performances across the board from all his cast, many of whom have simply magnificent 70s moustaches (as if Tom Selleck is showing up in every reel).

Argo may be about a hostage situation, but it is certainly not a film which glorifies America. While we do care for the plight of the six hiding diplomats, the film takes great pains to emphasise that it was indeed the USA that instituted the corrupt Shah, resulting in famine and poverty, and nobody could deny it takes some (admittedly hilarious) swipes at one of its biggest national industries, the movies. Rather, Argo focuses on the strength of co-operation between countries, and does it successfully.

The Six American diplomats, who in the film hide in the Canadian embassy

Inevitably, some parts of the story do change, and towards the end of the film we are given a very Hollywoodised interpretation of the events. It doesn’t matter. For a story which has not been widely told, and as a film partially about that prestigious American industry, Argo is intelligent, hilarious and suspenseful, and knows it. 

8/10

Review – Skyfall

Phones, alcoholic beverages, a fragrance – even an entire Sky Channel has been created to honour James Bond in what is a historic year for the British spy. I have been a Bond fan as far back as I can remember and hotly anticipated the new film – yet what I was confronted with was somewhat different to what I expected. Did that make me feel bad about it? Well…

Review – Skyfall

2012, 143 mins, 12A, Dir. Sam Mendes, starring Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem and Naomie Harris.

Skyfall

There’s a moment at the very beginning of Skyfall that assures you that you’re in the right place. A character enters the frame, far away and very out of focus, and yet the brief burst of music tells you exactly who it is. And in the ensuing chase scene in Istanbul, once he has driven a motorbike through the Grand Bazaar, that character narrowly makes a jump from one train carriage to the next, immediately adjusting his cufflink as he straightens himself. Ladies and gentlemen. James Bond is back.

As an attack is made on MI6 and the names of undercover agents posted on the internet, M finds her position under threat while secrets from her past begin to surface. Bond has to track down the source of the attack and neutralise it, while also trying to save his position as a double-O agent. 

The story is strikingly and unusually personal to both Bond and M, and it is by far the most mature Bond we’ve ever had. Sam Mendes gives us everything we would expect from the franchise – cars, bullets, explosive action, exotic women, even the odd double entendre – but also so much more. It is daring in its emotional exploration of Bond, in its introduction of M as a major character, and in its pacing. It cannot be denied that this is a Sam Mendes film, and yet it is so quintessentially Bond. The action sequences are really quite spectacular, and what’s more, you can tell what’s going on! Unlike the constantly shaking camera of its predecessor, Skyfall takes a restrained look at the action, and the film, with the help of cinematographer Roger Deakins, does look absolutely beautiful, particularly in the fight in Shanghai, a swirling scene of bright neon colours and silhouettes.

Daniel Craig as… well, you know who it is.

Skyfall also triumphs in its villain. As Silva, Javier Bardem has a creepy haircut and an even creepier manner, trying to unsettle Bond on their first meeting – if his proposition fails to scare Bond, then it certainly scares the audience. What makes him work other than Bardem’s truly brilliant performance is the character’s constant stepping-ahead of MI6 – he is a formidable villain of the computer age, a hacker, not bent on world destruction, but on something different entirely.

With a bigger role, and with a lot more to say, Judi Dench shines as M. She retains her fierce banter with OO7 and yet shows emotional depth when confronted with her past ‘sins’. Her relationship with Bond is one of the film’s main themes and one of the main reasons why it succeeds; Daniel Craig is equally impressive, not just in the physical sense as we would expect, but in indicating that there is more to his character than we might believe. It’s weighty stuff, and they pull it off.

But above all, Skyfall represents a return to the classic era of Bond, even within the guise of a more modern setting. Adele’s theme tune is powerful and melodic, unlike the thudding failure that was ‘Another Way to Die’. The Aston Martin DB5 shows up to a great fanfare, and Ben Whishaw appears as the new (and very good) Q. Jokes are made in both of these instances about the car’s gadgets and of Q’s young age – the film is smart and self-knowing despite the seriousness of the story. And it is also very British. Bond’s patriotism is often commented on, and the London locations were certainly very familiar; OO7’s pursuit of Silva both in Whitehall and in a crowded tube station was exhilarating to watch.

James Bond with the Aston Martin DB5

Skyfall emerges from the financial troubles of MGM as a confident and mature return for the British spy. It is well-written and acted, and has a more artistic and restrained sensibility whilst never abandoning the explosions and gunfire that make the Bond films so recognisable. Sam Mendes’ direction of the story and of the characters makes this film utterly unique, and while I don’t want to ruin what happens right at the end, I think it’s safe to say that I can hardly wait without strangling someone for the next film in the series. Welcome back, OO7.

9/10

Review – Looper

Review – Looper

2012, 118 mins, 15, Dir. Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt and Paul Dano

Looper

Looper is writer/director Rian Johnson’s third film. His first was Brick, a low-budget independent which took the linguistic styles of Raymond Chandler and substituted them into, believe it or not, a high school setting. And Johnson shows the same originality here, constructing a science-fiction premise which leaves you gasping for breath. It’s not perfect, but Looper is easily the best science-fiction film since Moon, a terrific and fresh train-ride of a movie which beguiles, shocks and entertains in turn.

It is 2042. We follow a man called Joe (Gordon-Levitt) who is employed as a ‘Looper’. When the mob want to get rid of someone in the future, they send them back in time to these loopers, who murder them. Loopers enjoy the high life of clubs, drugs and sex, but there comes a time when their own future selves are sent back to be dispatched – ‘closing your loop’. When this happens to Joe, his older version (Bruce Willis) escapes, triggering a violent train of events which will see a clash between the old and younger selves, a clash of two ideas about Joe’s future and past.

From the outset, it certainly looks like an action film, and from the beginning it convinces you that it is. There are some excellent set-pieces that simply refuse to be generic, with the characters actually taking time to aim and shoot, instead of a barrage of misfires and cover-taking. It also takes a decidedly R-rated stance; indeed, the heavy and powerful blunderbusses utilised by the loopers don’t allow for much else. The scenes in a dystopian Kansas city are truly exciting, but suddenly the film slows down and takes a more reflective stance. As Joe stumbles onto the farm of the protective Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son, the action turns minimal for a long period of time. Such a rapid change of pace is a little disorientating but if you can adjust then it is rewarding – the long sequence at the farm reveals some intriguing surprises, and Emily Blunt gives a bolstering performance as a woman you feel could really shoot you if she wanted to.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, meanwhile, is barely recognisable as the young Bruce Willis, and also gives a strong performance. When the two of them are onscreen together, chiefly in the diner sequence, it is more tense than you would imagine. They face each other off, grappling fiercely with alternate futures, each trying to impose himself on the other. Willis in particular is terrifying in this sequence and in the rest of the film; with a gun, he is a formidable and unforgettable force, plagued by memories of his life, and seeking to restore them as much as he can, no matter the cost.

Joe (Gordon-Levitt) and Joe (Willis)

The future urban city is brilliantly but realistically built. It is overpopulated, many of its residents living in poverty on the streets; the upper classes, with their expensive cars, suppress their fear of crime with large guns. China has overtaken the USA as a superpower, as Joe is recommended by his boss to learn Mandarin instead of French. You really gain a sense that things could turn out as they do in the film.

As with most films, though, there are problems. And Looper contains a number of plot holes that may affect your enjoyment of the film. Don’t let that happen. Yes, there are things which don’t quite add up, and some things which really don’t add up, but that should be no reason to pass it off. What you have is arty, ballsy filmmaking which disregards cliché and takes you on a thumpingly good ride. You may think it slumps in the middle. But the performances of the two leads, the design and the stellar action scenes more than make up for that. It’s a fantastic film.

8/10

Review – Sinister

Review – Sinister

2012, 110 mins, 15, Dir. Scott Derrickson, starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance and James Ransone

Sinister

While I’m not generally a fan of the horror genre, I do have an interest in what comes over from other countries (I enjoyed The Orphanage) and in ‘classic’ films like Carrie and the original Halloween. But the idea of sitting in a cinema watching a contemporary American horror movie sounds like some sort of vengeful punishment by a studio that had read one of my reviews criticising their film. Nevertheless, I summoned what little courage I had for the screening of Sinister, something I had been motivated to see because of its above-average reviews from Film4’s Frightfest.

It’s the story of a true crime writer named Ellison (Hawke) who is trying to resurrect some of his previous success by profiling and writing about a missing girl. Unbeknownst to his wife and two children, he has moved into the house that the girl disappeared from. The tension is heightened when, after exploring the attic, Ellison unearths a projector and some old reels of film that show murders taking place – a discovery that intrigues his investigation yet puts him and his family in danger of a supernatural force.

I’m sure that the first question that most cinemagoers will bring to this is ‘Is it scary?’ Well, when you’re there, pretty much. Several times I found myself squirming in my seat, unused to this experience of waiting, trepidatiously, until something suddenly leaps out at you. There are genuinely moments, often unexpected, which will make you jump, and the Super 8mm films that our hapless character finds are supremely chilling. One of them opens the movie itself by depicting a group hanging; the lack of sound only adds to its sinister effect.

Director Scott Derrickson constructs the scares in a very familiar atmosphere, the suburban home, as the lines between reality and what Ellison is projecting onto a screen begin to merge. What’s interesting is that we never leave the house (or backyard) until the last ten minutes of the film; an intelligent decision confining us to the claustrophobic corridors and rooms of this entrapment until we are finally thrust in a different direction.

Ethan Hawke is actually pretty good as true crime writer Ellison.

The problem lies with the main villain, the supernatural scare-point, which looks far too generic and refuses to stay long in the mind after viewing. I would always mark how scary something is by how much you imagine it in daily life to be hiding round corners; safe to say, I didn’t dwell on it very much. I was also left with a surprising coldness once the film had finished, as if it had just come, displayed some horrific things onscreen, and said goodbye. To an extent, this is what it does – not every horror film can have a socio-political message, but I just wanted it to make me think a little more.

Never mind. If it’s scares you’re looking for, Sinister has them, and genuinely does something interested with the tried, now maligned ‘found footage’ plot point.

6/10

Review – Taken 2

Spoilers given away here. As in, stuff that happens midway. So not really spoilers.

Review – Taken 2

2012, 92 mins, 12A, Dir. Olivier Megaton, starring Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen and Maggie Grace

Taken 2

Taken came out in 2008 and was a surprisingly enjoyable bout of Liam Neeson kicking, punching, shooting and stabbing anyone who stopped him from getting to his daughter, kidnapped by Albanian traffickers. Now that the sequel has arrived we should be expecting, as is the tradition with Hollywood, more of the same. And yet Taken 2, at least at times, acts like an odd parody of itself and its predecessor. And it is all down to the script.

So, a couple of years after the original (presumably) the family situation has changed somewhat; Bryman Mills’ (Neeson) former wife has separated again and his daughter has a boyfriend – you can see where this is going. After finishing a job in Istanbul he is surprised to see both of them meeting him at the hotel; but relatives of those killed in the last film are assembling and are preparing to take a hit on him and his family. Cue fist fights, stressful phone conversations, threats, and a car chase that logically would not work considering the young female driver can’t even pass a test in a manual car.

What the first film suffered from was the composition of its early sequences – Neeson trying to get to grips with the wants of his family but the resulting drama feeling very scripted and forced. Taken 2, on the other hand, starts promisingly. I thought that the early scenes which caught back up with the cast members were inspired and really well-played. Of course, when we transition to Istanbul, everything goes haywire, both in the literal and figurative sense. There’s nothing wrong with the kicking, punching, shooting and stabbing that’s on display (it is toned down to get a 12A rating), but the script is certainly problematic. Once Neeson is actually taken himself by these arrogant Albanians he communicates with his daughter from within his prison cell. Among the first lines of screenwriting genius after asking her to hide include, ‘Is it safe for you to get out of the closet?’ which was met with widespread laughter across the Leicester Square Odeon (the free beer might have had something to do with that, but still). Neeson’s ploy is for his daughter to throw grenades out of the window so he can ascertain how far away she is from him. It’s utterly ridiculous and really undermines the gritty edge of the original.

And it doesn’t stop there.  After the cold, motivated demeanour of the Neeson in the first film, the sequel maintains his stony face during most of the film but is just not served by the script, resulting in what can only be described as a bit of a mess. His lines are suddenly, and unintentionally, funny. It was like watching a particularly funny scene in Ricky Gervais’ mediocre Life’s Too Short in which Neeson himself grunts with a straight face that he wants to be a stand up comic. On repeat. Any attempt to stay serious in the final few scenes, which is desperately what it needs, is seriously in vain.

If you dumb down your senses then Taken 2 is probably going to be a lot of fun. But no matter how much you ignore its plot holes, you cannot ignore its dialogue. That’s not to say I really didn’t enjoy the film. I did in fact, like many of my fellow audience members, find humour where there shouldn’t have been any, but that doesn’t make it good in any sense of the word.

4/10