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February 28, 2017

Review: Taken 1x1 (US: NBC; UK: Amazon)

Posted on February 28, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Taken

In the US: Monday, 10/9c, NBC
In the UK: Tuesdays, Amazon

Pierre Morel's Taken is a classic action thriller. For those who by some miracle haven't seen it, it features Liam Neeson playing an aging former spy who's now down on his luck now he's divorced from his wife Famke Janssen. He also doesn't get to see his teenage daughter Maggie Grace (Lost) very much. But when Grace goes on a holiday to Paris with one of her friends and is abducted, Neeson puts into practice his 'very particular set of skills that [he's] acquired over a very long career' to find Grace and rescue her.

As I mentioned quite some time ago now, it's basically the movie that cemented Liam Neeson's reputation as one of the West's top action and martial arts stars. It's not without flaws - certainly the idea that Neeson would go into paroxysms of panic at the thought of his daughter going to Paris as she would be far safer in her home town of Los Angeles is a little bit laughable. But it's much smarter than you'd think and has some great action sequences. Just don't watch Taken 2 or Taken 3 since they are not good movies.

Taken obviously has some unique features: Neeson isn't a spring chicken; he's a family man but has an estranged wife and daughter; he operates virtually alone, with only a friend or two with equally useful special skills to help him; the film is set in Europe; and Neeson has all manner of dead-drops, contacts and tradecraft to draw on in his challenge.

Strangely, NBC's Taken uses none of this to try to tell a story that probably didn't need telling - how Leeson got his special skills. Except it doesn't even do that.

A prequel series, it stars Clive Standen (Vikings) as the young Liam, now revealed to be an ex-Green Beret who served in Colombia fighting drug cartels. Now back in the US, he's on a train with his sister when she's killed during a shootout with some men Standen thinks were after him. He then has to go on the hunt to find the man who sent them and who wants to punish him for some of his past actions. 

Although he doesn't know it, he's drawn the attention of a covert unit headed by Jennifer Beals (Flashdance, The Chicago Code, Proof) that operates outside the rest of the US intelligence community. Wanting to get to said bad guy, too, she's happy to use Standen as bait but if he can get there by himself, that's a win, too. 

Guess whom she wants to hire by the end of the episode…

Taken is as much a prequel to the movie as Bates Motel is to Psycho, being resolutely set in modern times rather than the 70s or 80s, right down to ubiquitous iPhones. But at least Bates Motel aspires to set up the events that lead to its parent movie in some way. Here Standen arrives fully formed as an action hero, in little need of building up an already potent skillset that nevertheless seems unlikely even for a Green Beret. There's the occasional reference to his not being married or having children yet ("Pray you never have a daughter"), but that's about it.

Neither does it embody any of those unique qualities of the movie. The show's clearly setting up Standen becoming part of a undercover team to fight drug cartel actions in North America (and possibly South America), so is going to be almost nothing like the movie. Indeed, rather than being a prequel to Taken it's better to think of the series as NBC's attempt to do its own version 24, since it has a more or less identical set-up, with Standen basically Jack Bauer in the Kim-less seasons, Beals and co the CTU of the piece.

Standen is at least a decent stand-in for both Sutherland and indeed Neeson - a former international Thai boxer and fencing gold medalist, he was also born in Northern Ireland and actually makes the effort to do a sort of blended American-Northern Irish accent à la Liam. Also among the cast is The Unit's Michael Irby, who's obviously got a good action pedigree to draw on, too.

Although there are plenty of moments during the pilot where you find yourself asking "Why doesn't he just…?" or "Why did he do that, FFS?", Taken also does at least have some surprisingly good action scenes (unlike Taken 2 and Taken 3) and from time to time, actually does something surprising, different or unusual from the usual beats and twists of action TV plotting.

Nevertheles, Taken is largely still a generic series that offers little to really differentiate it from any other semi-ensemble action TV show. It could be worth watching if later episodes take the show in new or unusual directions or make it more similar to the movie, but at the moment, Taken is Taken in name-only.

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February 24, 2017

Review: The Good Fight 1x1 (US: CBS All Access)

Posted on February 24, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Good Fight

In the US: Sundays, CBS All Access

Spin-offs are a tricky business. You want to try to attract as many people to watch them as possible. Yet if you make the spin-off too different, maybe the fans of the original show won't like it and won't watch; meanwhile, those who didn't watch the original won't watch because they know it's a spin-off. But if you make the spin-off too similar, the fans might get bored of seeing more of the same, while everyone else won't watch for exactly the same reasons they didn't watch the original.

The Good Wife was an ultimately much raved about drama in which Julianna Margulies returned to work as a lawyer after her cheating husband got locked up. I quite enjoyed it but I ended up watching only a few episodes, since it wasn't so good I wanted to stick it out beyond episode three, so I never really got to learn why everyone ended up loving it so much in later episodes.

Now we have The Good Fight, a spin-off from The Good Wife that's also the first show put out exclusively on CBS's new online-only Hulu rival, CBS All Access. And it all seems a bit familiar, even to me.

For starters, it sees Christine Baranski reprise her role as one of Margulies' mentors at her law firm, from which she's just about to retire. However, before you can say "well, how are they going to have a legal show if she's retired?", her accountant (CSI's Paul Guilfoyle) is revealed to have possibly been the architect of a Ponzi Scheme and all her money is now either missing or tied up in the investigation. Retirement? Not for you.

Trouble is, her old firm wants her gone and her association with Guilfoyle means none of her clients want to go with her if she leaves. Fortunately, there's another law firm for which Delroy Lindo and Good Wife regular Cush Jumbo work that might be interested in hiring her, so she can do good works, instead of defending the indefensible. Will she join the good guys and fight The Good Fight?

Well, duh.

Coming with her is Rose Leslie (the red-headed wildling from Game of Thrones), Guilfoyle's newly graduated lawyer daughter and former golden girl, who's now as toxic as Baranski, so it's basically The Good Wife again, in which an older female lawyer partnered by a younger (gay) woman rediscovers her worth and ambitions through a new job. There are what felt like a lot of references to that show and a certain degree of foreknowledge required of the viewers, such as the opening scene of Baranski watching the Trump inauguration silently devastated which is never referred to again, but I'm assuming is a reference to her political sensibilities. But it wasn't so debilitating that I couldn't understand or enjoy what was going on.

To be honest, while it's not hugely different from any number of other legal dramas, The Good Fight is at least well written, has a good cast and is occasionally funny. Possessed of no fewer than three Brits in its line-up pretending to be American (Lindo, Leslie and Jumbo), it's happy to mock that fact for the audience's pleasure by getting Delroy to ask Jumbo to answer phones in a London accent. Lockhart's loss of her retirement plans is a source of pathos, as is the fact the show also frequently has much poorer people who suffered from the Ponzi scheme explaining they've worked for 20 years and got nothing to show for it, too. TMZ investigations of Leslie and her girlfriend also enable Jumbo to offer friendship in a time of need by offering advice from Margulies' experiences, and Lockhart's relationship with her possibly soon to be ex-husband (Gary Cole) is actually quite touching.

But The Good Fight is nothing that new as a legal drama, even less so for anyone who's watched The Good Wife. Maybe that's why it's on CBS All Access - it would probably get cancelled quickly on broadcast TV but being quite cheap to make and on the Internet, it could find a niche quite easily. 

I'll probably give episode two a watch at least to see if takes the show in a different direction. Nevertheless, I suspect that just as with The Good Wife, I'll be out after three, even though there's nothing that wrong with it.

February 21, 2017

Review: Bellevue 1x1 (Canada: CBC)

Posted on February 21, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Bellevue

In Canada: Mondays, 9pm, CBC

They say one of the reasons that Denmark likes its horrific murder-mysteries on TV so much is that it's one of the nicest places in the world to live. With no emotional darkness in their lives, allegedly, the happy old Hygge-filled Danes have to live vicariously through Nordic Noir.

I'm assuming that's why lovely, happy Canada appears to be developing its own equivalent. We've already seen CTV's Cardinal firmly embracing the darkness to pioneer 'Canadian Noir' and now we have CBC plummeting into similar territory, although putting its own, very CBC spin on it. Here, we have Anna Paquin (The Piano, X-MenTrue Blood) playing a cop in the small town of Bellevue, investigating the disappearance of a trans teenage hockey star. Has he been beaten by homophobic fans or is something more sinister afoot?

Suspecting a known paedophile who's moved into town, she's surprised when her suspect is expecting her and even more surprised when he hands her a note that appears to be from her father. Or at least whoever it was who pretended to be her father after he died. Because when Paquin was just a kid, a teenage girl was killed and posed as the Virgin Mary in the nativity, outside the local church. Paquin's cop dad was in charge of finding the killer and when he failed, he committed suicide. Except a few years later, Paquin started receiving riddles addressed to her by her dad…

Bellevue is a bit of a botch job. One moment it's trying to be The Killing (and failing). The next it's trying to be The Exorcist III (and failing). The next it's trying to be Broadchurch (and failing). It's hard to know what mood the story will be in from moment to moment, and everything joins together as smoothly as if the writer had been given a bucket of fish and a crochet kit and been asked to turn them into a Ford Fiesta.

To its credit, its efforts to show small-town Canadian life make it a little bit different from other shows, but the dialogue is pretty cringe-worthy, especially anything involving new cop in town Sharon Taylor (Stargate Atlantis). It has a fine cast, too, particularly Paquin who's given a chance to show off her Oscar-winning range, but also Shawn Doyle (Endgame, Frequency, Vegas, This Life) as her boss and substitute father-figure. 

However, Bellevue has very little else to go for it, so if you are going to watch some of this new breed of Canadian Noir, Cardinal is a superior choice by far.

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