Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Special Operatives: The Ipcress File and Taken 2

Alternate unifying theme: Those Damn Albanians - they may come from a tiny country, but they're vicious enough to confound highly capable agents in both London and Istanbul!

(Not the opinion of the author. I don't know if I've ever met an Albanian, seeing as it is a small country, but I'm sure that the vast majority are lovely people!)

Both of these were pleasantly crowded screenings for Thursday and Sunday nights. Heck, after The Ipcress File, a bunch of us stuck around for a couple episodes of The Avengers, and while I'm not saying that I would be all over it if it were suddenly available on Region A Blu-ray (hey, the DVDs are out of print and it's old enough to be shot on film, so why not wish for BD?), I'd be sorely tempted if only for 1960s Diana Rigg. The Avengers had flaws aplenty, but Ms. Rigg had the sort of charm that could certainly make an hour per week pass quite pleasantly.

I wound up seeing Taken 2 at Boston Common despite knowing better on a couple of levels - I was sick of the trailer, had heard a lot of bad reviews, and also knew it would set me back less if I went to the Arlington Capitol. But, I didn't catch the bus in time and didn't feel like going home, so...

As kind of expected, not good, and I'm trying to remember whether or not I liked Olivier Megaton's Transporter 3. Columbiana was a disappointment, and T3 never made it to my shelf, so I'm guessing that Olivier Megaton, despite the most fantastic pseudonym for making action movies out there, really should find another vocation (or Luc Besson should ditch him for hurting the Europa brand). He really does make a hash out of what seems like it should be pretty straightforward, in that Taken is a franchise built on fights being over before the audience knows it because the main character is just that good, and you've got Liam Neeson and Famke Janssen in the cast to boot. I'm not saying making action movies is easy, but you've got the tools and a template for success, so just don't mess it up.

But Megaton did. Hopefully France will have produced another up-and-comer for Taken 3.

Two other things that didn't help on Sunday:

(1) The trailer for Parker. I can't say I'm the hugest fan of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark's master thief, but my reaction was somewhere between "well, maybe this would look like fun if it wasn't a 'Parker' movie" and "kill it with fire".

(2) I sat in the third row, and could still see three separate people occasionally turning on their smartphones. What the heck, people; it's not like you can miss the admonitions to not do the exact thing you're doing.

Ah, well. There's a couple more days of spy movies in 35mm at the Brattle; do yourself a favor and take some of them in.

The Ipcress File

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 October 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Cloak & Dagger, 35mm)

It's a bit surprising that nobody has remade The Ipcress File or launched a new Harry Palmer film franchise. After all, James Bond is still a license to print money, author Len Deighton's name isn't completely forgotten and Jude Law could go for a hat trick of being cast in iconic Michael Caine roles (Caine, of course, would play a small part). Not that there's much room for improvement here; the version we've got is a great little thriller, all the more so because of how well it nails down its sixties spy-fi paranoia.

Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) may be sarcastic and insubordinate, with an eye for the ladies, but he's good at his job in the Ministry of Defense - good enough for Col. Ross (Guy Doleman) to promote him out of surveillance when another agent is killed in action. His new supervisor, Maj. Dalby (Nigel Green), assigns him to the team investigating a sort of "brain drain" of government scientists quitting for unknown reasons. It's not so much a glamorous assignment filled with chases, though - there's legwork, paperwork, and politics as treacherous as anything else Palmer might uncover.

The Ipcress File is sort of what you would get if you split the difference between Ian Fleming and John LeCarré - a nefarious plot with larger than life elements combined with dangers that spring more from human pride and greed than any sort of mad science or world-conquering ambitions. The story is, in fact, an unusually well-balanced fusion of Cold War fears: The enemy within, the enemy without, a change in the world order that those in power still aren't used to even almost twenty years after the end of the War, and the threat of all this new science advancing at a frightening rate. Even a scene of Palmer and Dalby talking in a supermarket does a nice job of pointing out both how unglamorous intelligence work can be and how frightening the new world is for the old guard.
Full review at EFC.

Taken 2

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2012 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, Sony Digital 4K)

It's almost silly to wonder if Luc Besson and company had any sort of ambitions along the lines of showing the aftermath of a big action story after the adrenaline runs out. After all, Besson's main skill as a writer is tailoring a straightforward action movie to the strengths of its stars; continuity and complexity are not so much his thing. Even with that in mind, Taken 2 is a disappointment; hacking what simple pleasures it contains to ribbons.

As one may recall, former CIA agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) cut a bloody swath through the Parisian underworld when his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) was kidnapped; now, many of the bodies he left in his wake have been returned to their families in Albania, with the father of one, Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija) vowing revenge. That opportunity comes when Mills finishes a bit of personal security work in Istanbul, intending to spend the remainder of the week on vacation with Kim and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) - at least, until Murad kidnaps them, intending to kill Bryan's family in front of him.

This is obviously a bad idea. I'm no criminal mastermind, but the last time somebody abducted a member of Mills's family, he straight-up murdered everybody connected with the crime despite spotting the kidnappers enough time for him to fly from Los Angeles to Paris. I get that the desire to make things personal must be strong, but given Mills's history, this really seems like the sort of revenge best accomplished with a sniper rifle from a kilometer or so away. Sure, you can argue that the filmmakers were boxed in by their title (can you call it "Taken 2" without a kidnapping?), but that doesn't make the problem less obvious. Especially since Besson and co-writer Robert Mark Kamen drop hints that they may have been thinking of more than just repeating the first movie in a new city - Kim mentions that the ordeal of the first movie has left her a bit messed up, and Lenore's marriage has fallen apart since then; combine that with Murad and you've got everybody haunted to some extent. That's kind of a neat story, and an angle that few action sequels ever explore. Unfortunately, it's just given the barest of lip service rather than actually used.

Full review at EFC.

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