As the stunning [in more ways than one] and deadly Fiona in USA’s Burn Notice, Gabrielle Anwar finds herself playing a character whose first response to problems is to shoot them, or blow them up. During a teleconference call earlier today, she got a chance to talk about Fiona’s penchant for violence and… shall we say unusual… relationship with burnt spy, Michael Weston [Jeffrey Donovan].
A retired spy’s daughter is kidnapped to be sold as a sex slave [the slightly skeevey part]. The ex-spy hunts the men who kidnapped her. As premises go, this one is simple, direct and a bit odd to find in a PG-13 film – but we are talking about a Luc Besson production, so maybe it’s not really a surprise.
What is a surprise is that Taken, co-written by Besson [Leon, The Professional and The Fifth Element] and Robert Mark Kamen [The Karate Kid, The Transporter], and directed by Pierre Morel [District B13], is better than the premise suggests. This mostly because it takes a bit of time to establish that our protagonist, Bryan Mills [Liam Neeson] has retired because he wants to reconnect with his daughter, Kim [Maggie Grace]. We believe him because we see how disappointed he is when her mother, Lenore [Famke Janssen] and step-father, Stuart [Xander Berkley] upstage him at her birthday party [he brings her an expensive karaoke machine, but Stuart gives her a horse].
When she and her mother persuade him to sign a waiver allowing Kim to go to Paris, his warnings of danger fall on deaf ears and – sure enough – she and her friend are kidnapped. Then comes the phone conversation we saw in the trailer – followed by Mills taking action. Although Neeson is not a small guy, he does a good job of making himself seem ordinary as he begins tracking down the kidnappers, but once he swings into action, he becomes a force of nature.
Morel keeps the action up front and his pacing builds as Mills works himself up the chain of command – starting with the spotter who set up Kim and her friend. The usual ingredients of a Besson production are here – fights, chases, explosions – but because we buy into Mills as a father, there is a little more gravity, a little more at stake than usual.
Taken is entertaining but, ultimately, reliant on one performance. If you buy Neeson as Mills, then you’ll enjoy the movie. If not, you won’t. I did.
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How do you create and write a series like Burn Notice? What influences – from life and classic TV – go into the unique mix that is Burn Notice [USA, Thursdays, 10/9C]? Series creator Matt Nix answers these questions and more…
Tomorrow marks the return of one of the summer’s brightest lights, Burn Notice [USA, Thursdays, 10/9C]. When last we saw burnt agent Michael Westen [Jeffrey Donovan], he was caught in a freeze frame in mid-air after a bomb planted inside his door had gone off. It should come as no surprise that the winter premiere of the show picks up right at that precise instant. Nor will it come as a surprise that Westen survives – though he is banged up enough that he’s less than subtle in both his dealings with Carla [Tricia Helfer] and the con artists who benefited financially at the expense of a perhaps terminally ill boy named Jack. Westen saves Jack’s father from a terrible mistake [suicide] and after a very brief conversation, Kenny [David Barry Gray] becomes his next “side job” [as Carla puts it].
In our interview with Bruce Campbell [Westen’s right-hand man, Sam Axe] mentioned that he thought the show had a core of innocence, like The Rockford Files. Actually, I’d take that a couple of steps further and suggest that Burn Notice is a mash-up of Rockford and It Takes a Thief – only the hero is I Spy’s Kelly Robinson [in an upcoming interview, Nix talks about the way classic TV influenced the show].
In Do No Harm, the Season 2.5 premiere, Westen, who was pretty banged up after surviving the explosion, decides that he’s not exactly in the mood for subtle –something to do with almost dying [attempts on his life, he says, “are like snowflakes. Each one is different – and icy cold]. This puts Sam a bit on edge, and makes Fiona [Gabriel Anwar] a hair crazier than usual. It also means babysitting duty for Westen’s mom, Madeline [Sharon Gless].
The episode – which was written and directed by creator Matt Nix – seems to move a bit faster than usual. Probably because of Westen’s decision to forego subtlety. Also probably because of a twist in regard to his would-be assassin. Mostly, though it’s the combination of the above and con artists who target fatally ill children. As a result, the voiceovers aren’t quite as matter-of-fact as usual. There’s just a slight tonal difference, but we can tell Westen’s objectivity isn’t exactly intact.
Nix proves to be a capable director. He keeps the pace up and knows when to let the show’s trademark humor relieve the tension. Because he is so good, it should come as no surprise that Do Not Harm is one of the series’ best episodes, to date. After all, there’s compromising of the writer’s vision.
Final Grade: A
USA’s popular spy series, Burn Notice, is returning this week [Thursday, 10/9C] and we had the opportunity to chat with Bruce Campbell [crusty, semi-retired spy Sam Axe] on what to expect in Season Three. Campbell didn’t dip into any classified intel, but it was definitely a fun interview…
When alcoholic CIA analyst Osborne Cox [John Malkovich] refuses to accept a demotion because of his drinking problem and quits, he sets in motion a series of events that enmesh a number of not terribly bright characters in what could safely be called an anti-thriller thriller. When the notes on his memoir are accidentally left behind in a gym, they fall into the hands of gym employees Chad [Brad Pitt] and Linda [Frances McDormand] whose attempt to return them is mistaken for an attempted at blackmail.
Even though the files are worthless, Chad and Linda somehow get the Russians to show some interest – thoroughly confusing Ozzie’s former colleagues [David Rasche and his boss, J.K. Simmons]. At the same time, a federal marshal named Harry [George Clooney] is having affairs behind his children’s books author wife [Elizabeth Marvel] with Osborne’s wife [Tilda Swinton].
As the mistakes pile up, the CIA boss becomes so exasperated that he orders his subordinate to “Come back when this makes sense!” Alas, for them, it never will. In fact, it probably won’t for any of the characters – though one of them comes out of the whole thing less badly than the others.
All the elements of a Coen Brothers film are present in Burn After Reading. Odd angles [especially low-angles]? Check! Character arcs that bend and twist back on themselves? Check! Dialogue that stays with you after you’ve left the theater? Check! Unexpected moments of violence? Check! Expected moments of violence? Nope! If you’ve ever watched early Coen Brothers movies like Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, much of Burn After Reading will resonate with you. It’s that kind of film. If not, you might wonder if there’s anything actually going on in it.
Although none of the characters is terribly smart, some [especially Pitt’s Chad] project a kind of endearingly dim earnestness, which allows us to actually become involved in the movie. And some characters – like J.K. Simmons’ CIA boss – are there mostly to serve up unexpectedly humorous reactions. There’s even enough paranoia to give the humor even more of an edge – as Hitchcock once said, when a character notes, in the first act, that he’s never had to discharge his weapon, he had better do so in the third. The Coen Brothers use that device deftly enough that we don’t believe it when it happens because it’s simultaneously tragic and hilarious. Even the Fugs’ song over the closing credits works to the film’s advantage. After No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading comes across as the Coen Brothers’ version of a romp. For the most part, it works.
Final Grade: B+
Burn Notice’s first season concluded with former spy Michael Weston trapped inside the cargo trailer of an eighteen wheeler. When season two begins tomorrow [Thursday, USA, 10/9C], the little exercise in claustrophobia results in Weston [Jeffrey Donovan] being given an assignment – over the phone – by the mysterious Carla [Tricia Helfer] before the trailer is opened onto a scene of carnage. Spies. Whatcha gonna do?
Breaking and Entering, the second season premiere, deals with stealing information from a civilian military [mercenary] company. If it’s not done by a certain time, it will result in the death of the wife and child of the man who set up the firm’s security. The carnage that greets Michael when he clambers out of the trailer is what remains of the computer expert, Richie’s effort to flee. Plus, there’s always Michael’s manipulative mom [Sharon Gless], fellow ex-spy and buddy, Jack [Bruce Campbell] and ex-girlfriend/former IRA demolitions expert, Fiona [Gabrielle Anwar] to help and/or hinder. Topping that, Carla is one of the people who had Michael burned in the first place!
The follow-up ep, Turn and Burn, finds Michael helping a young woman with a stalker problem – by the number two man of the local drug kingpin! Even worse, he gets manipulated into attending a “counselling session” with his mom. [Oh, the humanity!] And these are just the side gigs! His assignment from Carla is to get a computer key card copied – and that requires a special kind of expert…
Burn Notice was probably the best series of last summer, in terms of pure entertainment value. It certainly filled the requirements of the USA “characters wanted” brand – though Michael is the most normal of the characters [it’s his mom and Jack who are the real characters!]. If anything, it seems that the series has gotten smarter, funnier and maybe even a bit edgier this season.
The first two scripts are killer and the ensemble certainly makes the most of that. Each ep is paced just quickly enough to maintain interest without trying to do too much too quickly [a real potential problem here]. Donovan has really done a nice job of keeping the balance between nice and twisted in Michael’s character. He gives the show its calm center in the eye of the hurricane that is his mom, Jack, and Fiona [though Fiona seems to have calmed down a bit from last season – let’s see how long that lasts]. Tricia Helfer nicely underplays Carla’s menace, thereby seeming even more dangerous, and she definitely adds a bit of spice to Michael’s life – which makes it even harder for Michael to find out who she really is – and who she works for.
If you liked Burn Notice last season, you’re going to love it this year.
Final Grade: A