Notes on Recent Action: “Taken 2” and “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

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Many of the reviews featured on Rotten Tomatoes brand “Taken 2” with words like “sloppy” and “lazy.” I thought it was about as lean and mean and intelligent as the other recent action movies from Chez Besson. While it’s not as well shaped or as shockingly reactionary as the first “Taken,” released back in 2008, it’s refreshingly sleek and no-nonsense, and it’s pretty darn satisfying as a piece of action movie craftsmanship. Director Olivier Megaton (“Transporter 3,” “Columbiana”) continues  to refine his incisive action style, which works by forcing your brain to fill in the chunks that are missing between his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots of elbows, fists, and fenders (he’s a bit like a cubist William Friedkin). A set piece which cross-cuts between the predicaments of Liam Neeson’s beefy ex-spy, his wife, and his daughter, and which ends with a clever melding of new technology (cell phones, GPS) and old (triangulation, smoke signals), is particularly satisfying: it’s like a souped-up reworking of a finale from some old two-reeler. The screenplay perhaps errs by having Neeson rescue his daughter with half an hour left in the movie, but that’s a relatively minor quibble.

Written and directed by John Hyams, “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” is an interesting, ballsy piece of filmmaking. It boasts a sordid, strip-clubby look, a buggy, subversive vibe, and some of the best-edited (and goriest) fight sequences in recent memory. Unfortunately, the narrative is so damn gnomic that it’s just about impossible to read any motivation into the characters. This combined with the logy mood and somnambulant pacing work to weigh the movie down; what starts out feeling novel becomes rather numbing. As near as I can tell the story concerns an army of bio-engineered killers, led by series regulars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, who have rebelled against the government that created them (they’re steroided Tea Partiers). Scott Adkins, the British martial artist who suggests an everyman Chuck Norris, attempts to put a stop to their plans. But when it turns out that he, too, may be a fed-programmed killbot, Adkins begins to question his motives. It’s an ingenious, Chinese-box concept: a guy wakes up from his comfy suburban life to discover that he’s actually a super-potent killing machine . . . only to wake up yet again, this time to discover that he’s merely a patsy. And in some ways the movie seems intended as an “open your eyes” parable along the lines of “Total Recall,” “The Matrix,” and “Fight Club.” But its impact is dulled by its shortcomings as a narrative-emotional experience.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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8 Responses to Notes on Recent Action: “Taken 2” and “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”

  1. Tarl says:

    While it’s not as well shaped or as shockingly reactionary as the first “Taken,” released back in 2008

    I did not think the movie was reactionary. Indeed, I was extremely offended by the politically correct ending. After going through all that hell, Liam’s badass character meekly returns his daughter to his b***h of an ex-wife and her a-hole new husband. WTF??? How BETA can you get? My ending would have been Liam living in Rio with a Brazilian babe, teaching his daughter all his wicked skills and periodically calling his ex-wife to taunt her.

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  2. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    His storming into Paris and viciously killing every A-Rab in sight wasn’t enough for you? You’re hardcore.

    FWIW, I thought “Taken” treated Neeson’s relationship with his wife and daughter pretty sensitively. It’s one of the only recent movies I can think of which even bothers to suggest that a guy in his position might have negative feelings about his situation, and might have hidden reserves of male strength that the women in his life don’t recognize — until, of course, it’s needed. The movie sets him up as an emasculated buffoon, and he walks away from it a hero.

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  3. agnostic says:

    Ultimate alpha solution to the estranged wife problem:

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  4. Sax von Stroheim says:

    I feel the need to chime in on “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”, which I liked more than Fabrizio did (it’s one of my favorite movies of the last few years). For me, though there are definitely some plot holes, Hyams manages to cover them up (or make them not matter) by giving the movie a nightmarish, David Lynch-vibe. I found it to be a very powerful (and troubling!) allegory for soldiers coming back from war suffering from PTSD. Plus, it does something really interesting with the way it acts as a kind of intertwined, dual commentary on (a) how the government uses manipulation to get people to go kill other people for it and (b) how filmmakers use manipulation to get audiences to root for characters to go around killing people. It doesn’t so much “deconstruct the genre” as it revivifies the corpse of an action movie mid-autopsy and lets it rampage around for a while. Plus, I can’t say enough about Scott Adkins, who’s just a really fantastic athlete/actor/performer/fighter. It makes a big difference in a movie like this when you don’t have to fake it as hard as you would with someone like, say, Matt Damon in the role.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Nice mini-review. I liked it probably more than my write-up lets on. There’s a lot going on in it, and It gets under your skin in a way that “Taken 2” (or most movies) doesn’t. And I agree about the Lynchy vibe. (I was going to mention Lynch, but I think I’ve mentioned Lynch in too many reviews lately.) Still, I can’t lie — after a certain point I was mystified by the narrative. I just gave up on trying to figure out what was happening. Maybe it makes me a square, but I tend to get annoyed when that happens. There are also some weird (possibly unintentional?) meta things in the movie. I love how he meets a hot chick, gets a bitchin’ car….and then just abandons them. I laughed at that — but not until the movie was over and I was reflecting back on it.

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