Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Face-Off: Gran Torino and Taken

Gran Torino
(2008, Clint Eastwood)

Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this film. His character, Walt Kowalski, is an embittered Korean War veteran living in Detroit. His wife has just passed away and his sons believe it may be time for the old timer to settle in in a residence. Kowolski, no fool to anyone except himself, vehemently disagrees and wants nothing more than to be left alone in his house. He especially wants nothing to do with that darn Asian family living next door (they are Hmong). But there are gangs about that terrorize the family and Walt eventually, and reluctantly, gives in and decides to lend a hand.

I very much enjoy Eastwood's as a director. If I'm not mistaken he's been frowned upon by a few filmspotters, but I feel he tells interesting stories with a great sense of maturity. For someone who started out as an actor, his movies are fine example of good filmmaking. However, with Gran Torino, he may have misplayed his cards. There are many, many scenes, between Walt and the youngest boy who lives next door, Thao (Bee Vang, who tried to steal his Gran Torino as an initiation step for his entry into a gang) while I admire Eastwood's attempts at going for character development, most of them feel stagy, forced. Young Vang's lack of acting skills doesn't help matters in the least. His body language is stiff and feels fake. In what is apparently his acting swan song, Eastwood is fine, but not spectacular (was he ever such a thing as an actor?). Thankfully, when he gets into action, it's done mostly with words and attitude rather than actual fists (with one exception), which was fun to see. At 78, I'm not sure how comfortably he could emulate Jason Bourne. He still packs a mean mug however.

Of course, gangs have to be involved to move the story forward, which would have been fine, but oh well, I suppose Clint needs to show us he can still kick some nuts. The gang's presence in the film adds a certain cultural layer to the film. It is mentioned at one point how the Hmong youth in the neighborhood tend to be poor and are thus regularly recruited. This serves, in a sense, as the reason behind Walt's slow change of face towards his neighbors. It's nice, if nothing that hasn't been see before. There some funny lines spread around. As words in everyday language, they shouldn't be uttered, unless you actually want to be called a racist bigot. But there is something strangely comical about 78 year old Clint walking into an Asian household and calling them all...well, I'm sure you know a few of them yourselves.

I suppose Gran Torino is alright, but it isn't terribly memorable and it suffers from some hokey acting and some stagy scenes. I dare say I won't remember much about this movie in a few months time. Check it out at your own risk, although you may find things to like about it.

(2008, Pierre Morrel)

Liam Neeson is Bryan Mills, a retired spy of sorts who has quit his job to be closer to his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). She lives with her mother Lenore (Famke Janssen) and her new husband, a rich and ideal man. Things are evidently sour between between Bryan and Lenore and bla bla bla, the setup is fairly long for an action movie. It's actually not terrible, I just don't think I should spend too much time one it. The point is that when Kim goes to Paris for the summer with a friend, she is kidnapped by women traders. Bryan, who's previous line of work has made him wary of the world and equipped him with a 'particular set of skills', sets out to Paris to find his daughter...and kick some nuts...literally.

Taken is about a really, really, ticked off man. I have always been a huge Liam Neeson fan particularly because he tends to play charming or complex characters. Here, he is on autopilot to destroy absolutely anyone who stands in his way. Certainly a minor shift in tone for a Neeson film. In fact, I'd even say that if Hollywood ever decided to make a Jason Bourne which featured the title character at 55-60 years old, Neeson and director Morrel have beaten them to it. This functions like a Bourne movie. No gadgets, working with wits and quick, intelligent decisions, quick pace and editing (but controlled, unlike another, bigger movie that came a few weeks ago). It was a strange experience overall. I mean, Liam Neeson absolutely ran over almost everybody in this movie. The editing made him look quicker than he probably is in real life, but still, this is something else. Schindler was breaking necks and cracking balls here. This led me to chuckle on a few occasions, which clearly wasn't the point of the film, but I'd rather laugh than be bored. His ingenuity is a bit too much at times, but I suppose that adds some funny charm to the movie.

The fights are relatively well choreographed. They are easy to follow and intense (and funny). Neeson isn't given too much to say or do. He's a nice guy, he just wants his daughter back is all. The screenplay, which has Luc Besson written all over it, features some silly plot points which hint that he and collaborators needed to make something, anything, happen in order to move the story forward, but again, if you're watching this movie is it for the story? I somehow have my doubts. His friend in the French police (Olivier Rabourbin) helps him out a bit, but doesn't do much overall.

Taken moves along a very brisk pace, and if you're curious enough to see the usual classy Liam Neeson drop the gloves in a one man war on slave traders, then look no further. Hey, he'll probably only make a movie like this once, so enjoy!

Neeson pins Eastwood into submission. Both shake hands and enjoy a good whisky afterwards. Taken wins.

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