LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Running out of kidnapped relatives for Liam Neeson's ex-CIA killing machine to rescue, scribes Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen turn him into a fugitive framed for murder in "Taken 3," that abandons chic European capitals for the character's own backyard. French director Olivier Megaton, who at least paced "Taken 2" with workmanlike efficiency, executes the pedestrian plot without a shred of tension or finesse. Opening in Hong Kong on New Year's Day, a week ahead of its U.S. bow, the Fox release will draw crowds simply because it's supposedly the last installment of the lucrative franchise, but they'll just be hostages to tedium.
In "Taken" (2008), helmed by Pierre Morel, Neeson's Los Angeles-based Bryan Mills went after Albanian slave traders who kidnapped his 17-year-old daughter in Paris. Made as a low-budget B-movie that sent up U.S. politics and values even as it emulated American genre films, it grossed $227 million worldwide. The sequel, made four years later, reversed the pattern by having the Albanians' vengeful relatives kidnap Mills and his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen). Despite the more elaborate action setpieces and heightened casualties, the premise remained just as basic and clear: The shocking way in which the hostages are taken, and the methodical manner in which the retired CIA agent tracked them, generated tremendous excitement.
Without someone to save, the concept of a race against time is seriously weakened. While family matters were kept short and sweet in the other two installments, "Taken 3" stretches out the kitchen-sink drama endlessly: Mills' daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), who was 17 when she was first kidnapped, is now a college student facing serious adult problems. Her dad, however, still believes that, after having hurled a few hand grenades and driven a stolen car through a shower of bullets, she'd still be content to play with a stuffed panda on her birthday.
Equally troubled is Lenore, who seeks consolation as her marriage to filthy-rich Stuart (Dougray Scott) is on the rocks. The possibility of Lenore and Mills rekindling their relationship is put on hold, however, when he's forced to go on the run for a crime he didn't commit. As he said to Lenore in the previous film: "I'll be OK. It's the people following me who're gonna have a problem."
Given that Mills walked away Scot-free from double-figure body counts in Europe, watching him evade arrest by Inspector Frank Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) doesn't yield much in terms of suspense or surprises. Mills describes Dotzler as "very clever," though the latter's theory that anyone who buys warm bagels can't be a cold-blooded killer ranks among the more illogical police deductions in recent memory. Elsewhere, detecting and blocking each other's tracking devices is pretty much the extent of their mental sparring.
One of the series' talking points has been its extremely negative portrayal of Albanians; "Taken 2" closed on a note suggesting the the blood feud would live on, and it would have made sense here for it to continue here, or for Mills to finally set foot in the hermit country. Alas, those scuzzy Balkan soccer fans have been ditched in favor of Russian mafiosos, who come across as pale imitations of the tattooed fiends in David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises."
What has made the "Taken" franchise such a guilty pleasure so far is its take-no-prisoners stance toward bad guys and its no-holds-barred brutality, especially coming from Neeson, an actor who radiates gravitas and nobility no matter what. Although less graphic in its representation of violence than its predecessors, "Taken 3" retains a gutsy realism in scenes where Mills matter-of-factly cracks bones and splatters brains, and the shoot-'em-ups, car wrecks and explosions are noisier and more bombastic than ever. They're also unimaginatively choreographed, with zero forward momentum. Even as the scale of each production has increased, the scope of the action has diminished: Compared with scattering hand grenades all over Istanbul, it's mere child's play for Mills to blow up a classroom at Kim's college.
Without a doubt, the first "Taken" movie gave Neeson, then in his 50s, a new lease on life as an action hero. Now 62, the actor still has an imposing presence, but more often than not, he looks pretty beat and impatient to get things over with. Kim has evolved from an exasperatingly clueless brat to a feisty rescuer over two films, but there isn't any real progression in character development or in Grace's performance here.
Stuart, a slimy wimp as played by Xander Berkeley in the first "Taken," served as a neat foil for our straight-talking, straight-shooting hero. Replaced here by Scott, he behaves like a badass dude who is supposed to be Mills' equal in gun-toting prowess; it's a wholly unconvincing transformation. As Russian mafioso Malankov, Sam Spruell behaves like a cardboard James Bond villain, showing some vicious individuality only in the action scenes.