Saturday, February 07, 2009

Liam Neeson takes us through a very bad script

Sometimes I suspect other actors envy Dustin Hoffman most for getting a major acting award for reading the phone book in "Rain Man". While a great script produces a better product, a mediocre or downright bad script leaves the audience, and the critics, in no doubt about where the entertainment value of a film comes from.

Whatever I think of his decision to bring the script of Taken to life, he has certainly turned in a profitable film that appeals to a large audience and a reasonable number of critics; having seen it, I would say that he had no help at all from the script. At some moments in the film, I found myself literally carried along; the intensity of the performance kept me from noticing the absurdity of the situation. For example, early in the film, Neeson's character finds the identity of a member of the gang, locates him, and then proceeds to try to interrogate him in the worst possible place. This pattern in the script, of making the character relatively clever, subtle and methodical when the action requires it, and utterly foolish and impulsive at other times, persists through most of the film. That may work for setting up certain kinds of suspense, but it does not help us believe in the characters.

The dialogue doesn't do much to entertain the audience, either. The script serves up lines used a hundred times before, sometimes so out of context it hurts to watch. In the lead-up to the penultimate scene, I had to wonder if they really, really intended to do what they did, and then even the legendary acting ability of Liam Neeson could not carry me any further. I found myself thinking that Lloyd Simandl does this kind of thing better. But even as I alternately cringed or laughed as the script went from preposterous to absurd and the remaining minutes of the film ran out, Neeson's performance had a separate life. The script writer may have had complete contempt for the audience, but the actor never stopped giving us everything.

Europe actually has a problem with sex trafficking, one that has absolutely nothing to do with American kids getting kidnapped from upscale Paris apartments (any Albanian gang that decided to try that would find themselves in prison, probably with serious injuries, before you could say Natalee Holloway). A writer with more talent and conscience could have given us a much better film on the subject: made Maggie Grace's character an aspiring journalist, followed the macabre dance of the real slavers, their enablers and victims, the reporter trying to expose them, and the reporter's father in the shadows, ready to protect her and spring his own trap on the villains. Perhaps someone will make that film, or one like it, that tells something like the real story of human trafficking in twenty-first century Europe. And if that film gets made and opens people's eyes, some of the credit may have to go to the people who proved that a bad film about human trafficking could make money, and to the brooding actor who made that film work.

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