The de­fi­ant ONE

Af­ter close to 20 years in the busi­ness, Famke Janssen still sur­prises with her choices, writes Stephen Fitz­patrick

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Taken 2

OR some­one who got her break play­ing fe­male leads in big-bud­get ac­tion flicks, Famke Janssen claims to know sur­pris­ingly lit­tle about on­screen fight­ing — and says she has even less in­ter­est in learn­ing. Af­ter her break­through mo­ment as Rus­sian vil­lain Xe­nia Onatopp in the 1995 James Bond out­ing Gold­en­eye, Janssen found her­self im­planted in the minds of fans as quite the dom­i­neer­ing screen pres­ence, with those ex­plo­sively strong leg-clenches a sex­u­ally charged spe­cialty for the char­ac­ter.

She quickly ad­mits she’s for­ever grate­ful for the other ca­reer op­tions that kind of role has made pos­si­ble. But on the eve of the re­lease world­wide of Taken 2, the re­mark­ably en­gag­ing fol­low-up to the high-en­ergy 2008 ac­tion thriller Taken, and in which Janssen re­turns as the slightly an­noyed down-home Amer­i­can exwife of re­tired CIA agent Bryan Mills (Liam Nee­son) and mother of their re­peat­edly kid­napped daugh­ter Kim (Mag­gie Grace), she has a rather frank reve­la­tion to make.

‘‘ Still to­day peo­ple think that I have to do a lot of work­ing out, a lot of fight­ing-type sports, to pre­pare for these parts,’’ she says, a note of ex­as­per­a­tion in her voice. ‘‘ But when I think about the parts I’ve done, I lit­er­ally can’t re­mem­ber one type of fight train­ing I’ve had to take for these films — be­cause I never do any­thing!’’

Cer­tainly in Taken 2 her char­ac­ter, Lenore, spends a great deal of time hang­ing up­side down, un­con­scious, with a bag over her head; and even her role as Jean Grey in the block­buster X-Men ac­tion-flick fran­chise was, she notes point­edly, in some ways against ac­tion-hero type: ‘‘ I play a char­ac­ter who has cere­bral pow­ers, who lit­er­ally doesn’t have to lift a fin­ger for things to hap­pen.’’

It’s not just nit­pick­ing on Janssen’s part to be an­gling for the dis­tinc­tion. Her re­sume in­cludes a huge amount of in­de­pen­dent and off-Hol­ly­wood work, and in­cludes her wri­ter­di­rec­tor de­but, the low-bud­get — she de­scribes it as ‘‘ guerilla’’ — flick, Bring­ing Up Bobby, star­ring Milla Jovovich. It has been seen at film fes­ti­vals and is about to have a lim­ited cin­e­matic re­lease in the US. She points out she has spent her roughly 20 years in the act­ing game switch­ing be­tween block­buster and small-scale pro­duc­tions — in­clud­ing plenty of tele­vi­sion and even, this year, made-forin­ter­net TV — and says the eclec­tic mix of jobs suits her am­bi­tion per­fectly.

‘‘ It’s some­thing that you learn very early on as an ac­tor,’’ she says. ‘‘ You can have a big goal and idea of how you would like your ca­reer to be, but un­less you can re­ally strad­dle that very small line be­tween the busi­ness and the artis­tic part of it all you can’t re­ally have a con­sis­tent ca­reer. So I’ve done both. I’ve gone back and forth be­tween the stu­dio films and the very small in­de­pen­dent films.’’

Yet the fas­ci­nat­ing foot­note to all this is that the Taken films them­selves aren’t ex­actly prod­ucts of the Hol­ly­wood block­buster sys­tem, for all that they might ap­pear to be. They’re en­tirely French cre­ations with barely an Amer­i­can in­volved, com­par­a­tively speak­ing. Di­rec­tor Olivier Me­ga­ton and writer-pro­ducer Luc Bes­son are French, as are the di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Ro­main La­cour­bas and com­poser Nathaniel Mechaly. Janssen is Dutch and Nee­son, even if he’s here play­ing an Amer­i­can and has made Hol­ly­wood his thing, is Ir­ish.

What’s more, the bulk of the shoot­ing for each of the Taken films was in Paris (‘‘one of my favourite cities in the whole world’’, Janssen en­thuses) and Is­tan­bul (‘‘one of the most in­cred­i­ble places I’ve ever been to’’), re­spec­tively. So why should it be that au­di­ences continue to see them as big-bud­get Hol­ly­wood films, ar­tic­u­lat­ing a par­tic­u­larly Amer­i­can us-v-them ide­o­log­i­cal po­si­tion? The se­cret, it seems, lies in the French pro­duc­tion team’s abil­ity to tap into the most preva­lent Western anx­i­ety of the mod­ern era: an Amer­i­can-led fear of the ‘‘ other’’ un­der the catch-all la­bel of ter­ror­ism. And it is here that the se­quel picks up con­vinc­ingly from where the first film left off.

With $US224 mil­lion in box-of­fice tak­ings for the 2008 ef­fort, there had to be some­thing con­vinc­ing in it. The ba­sic story: teenage daugh­ter Kim, chaf­ing un­der the re­stric­tive hand of fa­ther Bryan, whose de­vo­tion to his job at the war-on-ter­ror coal­face has led to the break­down of his mar­riage to Lenore (Janssen), tells a few white lies to get Dad to al­low her to take a hol­i­day in Paris with a girl­friend. (The sub­plot, which she doesn’t tell him but which he dis­cov­ers through his CIA su­per­sleuthing skills, is that the girls are go­ing to fol­low U2 city by city on the Ir­ish band’s Euro­pean tour — a de­tail that lo­cates the film very pre­cisely in its own cul­tural Zeit­geist.)

Al­most im­me­di­ately on their ar­rival, the two are kid­napped by an Al­ba­nian or­gan­ised crime gang run­ning a forced pros­ti­tu­tion racket. Bryan uses his ra­zor-sharp counter-ter­ror­ism net­work con­nec­tions to lo­cate the vi­o­lent crim­i­nals, out­wit them in mere hours and — with the usual punc­tu­a­tion for a film of this kind of a se­ries of finely chore­ographed fight scenes — dis­patch them all back to even­tual coffins on an Al­ba­nian hill­side.

So far, so good. Most of the good guys live hap­pily ever af­ter, al­though Janssen’s char­ac­ter has barely played a sin­gle scene of any sig­nif­i­cance by the time the clos­ing cred­its roll, some­thing the ac­tress says bugged her in the in­ter­ven­ing years and that played on her de­ci­sion as to how she could continue with a se­quel. ‘‘ Peo­ple would come up to me in the street and say, ‘ Oh yeah, you were that hor­ri­ble bitch in that Taken movie’ and ‘ You were that ter­ri­ble mother’, those kinds of com­ments, and I re­ally thought that if you brought back the char­ac­ter she has to be kinder,’’ she ex­plains.

The key on the kind­ness front is that in Taken 2, Lenore’s re­mar­riage has bro­ken down and Bryan, re­pen­tant for the years of pres­sure he put on his fam­ily by be­ing wed­ded to his top-se­cret job, is now con­stantly on the scene, fuss­ing about Kim (who now has a boyfriend — cue older male-younger male ag­gres­sion for the plot set-up) and tak­ing free­lance but high­level se­cu­rity gigs to keep his hand in the counter-es­pi­onage game. As you do.

With a body­guard­ing as­sign­ment loom­ing in Is­tan­bul and the old fam­ily spark reignited, Bryan sug­gests to Lenore and Kim that they join him there after­wards for a few days’ sight­see­ing. It won’t take a so­phis­ti­cated au­di­ence to be groan­ing at the ob­vi­ous out­come of that par­tic­u­lar plot-line, but writer Bes­son and di­rec­tor Me­ga­ton have made it work well enough by not try­ing to be too clever about the whole deal.

The nar­ra­tive for Taken 2 es­sen­tially picks up right where the first film left off — it al­most feels as if you’re watch­ing the sec­ond night’s episode of a crack­ing two-part TV drama — with the funerals on that Al­ba­nian hill­side of the gang mem­bers with whom Bryan pre­vi­ously dealt in the course of res­cu­ing his daugh­ter. Nat­u­rally, the prom­ise by clan leader Mu­rad (Rade Sherbed­gia), as the dirt is poured into his son’s grave, is that re­venge will be ex­acted. Ob­vi­ously, a re­peat kid­nap­ping can be only mo­ments away. Bryan’s in­struc­tions over the phone to Kim (‘‘Lis­ten to me — your mother and I are about to be taken’’) launch the start of an en­ter­tain­ing and nail-bit­ing count­down to which, it would hardly be a spoiler to point out, the good guys again mostly win. How­ever, there’s a moral twist of sorts, which Janssen ex­plains suc­cinctly.

‘‘ Ob­vi­ously the first film re­ally struck a chord with peo­ple be­cause of the tim­ing of it all, what the world had gone through at that time with 9/11,’’ she says, ‘‘ so I think peo­ple un­der­stood this idea that Liam’s char­ac­ter would do any­thing to pro­tect his own fam­ily. And then the se­quel con­tin­ues that but ends with the is­sue of do we continue this cy­cle, or am I go­ing to take the high road here and not continue this slaugh­ter, this death and de­struc­tion. Which is again some­thing we’re deal­ing with very much at the mo­ment.’’

This is­sue of us v them and how we deal with it as a so­ci­ety is, hardly coin­ci­den­tally, also a key theme for Janssen in her other work, most no­tably in Bring­ing Up Bobby. In that case, how­ever, Jovovich as the out­sider — the Ukrainian im­mi­grant sin­gle mother who be­lieves in an Amer­ica she has con­structed in her mind en­tirely on the ba­sis of old movies she has seen — is given the more sym­pa­thetic treat­ment. It’s quite the op­po­site of the read­ing af­forded the out­sider Al­ba­nian bad guys of the Taken films.

‘‘ I wanted to spin that whole no­tion of the Amer­i­can dream on its head,’’ Janssen says. ‘‘ And I wanted the pro­tag­o­nist to be a woman who lives out a very skewed ver­sion of the Amer­i­can dream.’’ It’s a mo­ti­va­tion that comes, she points out, from be­ing her­self ‘‘ a for­eigner in an­other coun­try. I felt like an out­sider when I first came, but then af­ter hav­ing lived in New York for 20 years or so I thought I re­ally un­der­stood the United States un­til I went to Ok­la­homa; and then I thought, no — that is Amer­ica, and that Amer­ica is so for­eign to me.’’

Next up? A screen­play she wrote and hopes to di­rect, called Rio Rojo, set in Mex­ico and deal­ing with the vexed is­sue of wa­ter se­cu­rity — prov­ing there’s noth­ing like stay­ing out­side of one’s com­fort zone, on-screen or off.

Bring­ing Up Bobby

Famke Janssen in Cannes last year for

Taken 2, Taken

Liam Nee­son and Janssen in the French thriller

which picks up where

ended

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