The defiant ONE
After close to 20 years in the business, Famke Janssen still surprises with her choices, writes Stephen Fitzpatrick
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.
Famke Janssen in Cannes last year for
Liam Neeson and Janssen in the French thriller
which picks up where