Saturday, May 16, 2009

It's the Human Trafficking Face-off! Besson's TAKEN vs PBS' WALLANDER

TrustMovies made one his rare forays into the world of television this week and returned even more certain that he'd never name his blog TrustTV. The event was the American debut of the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series WALLANDER. The following night he caught up with TAKEN, the most successful and surprising "sleeper" to hit theatres so far this year (and out just now on DVD).

Both films come in at 90 minutes (Taken's credit roll is longer than Wallander's) and both deal with the most popular, need-a-villain?/Try this one! catch-all, bug-a-boo since the evergreen-but-now-a-bit-boring terrorist: the human trafficker. Really, this new, all-purpose bad guy comes complete with everything: violence (against women: ten more points!), exotic locales, foreign accents, nudity, sex, the works! By all of the above, including my headline, I do not mean to make fun of human trafficking, which is one of the sleaziest and most inhumane of criminal occupations, particularly when it takes in the sex trade (just ask The NY Times' Nicholas Kristoff).

The Unknown Woman (La sconosciuta), the film that won Italy's major "David" awards in 2007, had the same theme and was actually better than either of the examples at hand, but Giuseppe Tornatore's fine, if excessive, film still awaits a DVD release in the U.S., after receiving a single-city (guess which?) theatrical run in 2008. For the performance of leading lady Kseniya Rappoport alone (shown at right, above, with co-star Michele Placido), the movie's a must. So let's hope that whichever distributor is currently holding on to this film lets it loose to DVD soon.

Wallander stars Kenneth Branagh (at left and top) as a titular Swedish super-sleuth (from an extremely popular series of novels) in a three-part series which began this past Sunday on PBS stations. It bears most of the hallmarks of both the Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery experiences that viewers have come to expect over the decades that these series have graced the small (lately somewhat larger) screen: classy production values, a star or two or three (here Branagh is joined by David Warner, who plays his father), important themes and -- since this bears "Mystery" moniker -- crime.

Mystery was almost always the weak sister to Masterpiece, with lame if fussy plots, frail and obvious characterization, and a sameness coupled to a heavy hand that rendered, for me at least, the series a usual washout. (Yes, there were exceptions along the way, as is always true.) For Wallander, the idea seems to have been to couple the class of Masterpiece with the crime of Mystery, but the result -- if this first episode is any indication -- is small potatoes. The production is given an elegant look (gorgeous vistas of yellow fields, sea-scapes and posh homes) in wide-screen and Wallander is surrounded by the usual crime staff (above, none of them at all interesting except in their ability to move long the so-so plot) and typical suspects (most of them red-herrings, with the non-herring a little too obvious). The murders (several) are shown in the usual "classy" manner that renders them arty and exotic rather than particularly "real." Most of the actors do "Swedish" via British accents, which we're used to from our history of hearing actors playing Germans use British accents (not Tom Cruise, of course). The investigative prowess of Wallander, the character, we must take on faith, as far too little is shown us and, as usual, all the pieces fall into place neatly for a ho-hum, told-you-so climax.

It's unfair, I suppose to make too much much of the mediocrity of Wallander (it's TV, dummy!), but against the more muscular moviemaking skills demonstrated by Pierre Morel in Taken (he also gave us the terrific Banlieu 13), this Swedish detective-story adaptation does pale. While Taken (photo above is of the "takees") ought not be taken as gospel where sex trafficking (or much else) is concerned, as charge-ahead, take-no-prisoners entertainment, it's damn good. (Take, take, take: I ought to have come up with another verb, right?) Liam Neeson, below with photo, is a tad more stolid than necessary in the acting department (he even gets a line reading dead-wrong), but makes a decent enough aging hero who refuses to waste the time he doesn't have. (96 hours is considered the maximum to track down a recently kidnapped young woman before she ends up disappearing for good.)

The various locations are well-chosen and/or created: the classy digs from where Neeson's daughter is abducted, the "offices" of the kidnappers (they're Albanian, 'natch -- a tiny, poor Eastern Euopean country that could never muster the PR chops to fight back), and the very posh accommodations where the auctioning of those kidnapped is held. The film's pacing is relentless, pretty much up until the finale, where, for me it began to drag a bit: A little more inventiveness here would have been appreciated. In the overall scheme of things, however, this is but a quibble. Perhaps my biggest praise is simply this: If I'd seen the film prior to my daughter's doing her junior-year semester abroad, I would have lost a lot more sleep.

Taken, by the way, was produced and co-written by Luc Besson under his shingle EuropaCorp and has -- surprisingly (I hope there is a rationale behind this) -- very few big, as in "explosive," special effects. Its success resides in the nimbleness of its film technique set against the gravity of its plot situation. The humanity of that situation -- a father's need to protect his daughter -- is not unlike another popular arthouse success of last year, Trust No One, in which a husband's love for his wife trumped all else (except filmmaking skills, which were heavily on display). That both films were surprise successes in the U.S. may give some clue to what audiences crave -- content and theme handled skillfully -- outside of the usual blast-off or blast 'em special effects.

2 comments:

GHJ - said...

Come on Jim, there's some great TV out there! You haven't lived until you've watched The Wire, possibly my pick for the best piece of visual media this decade. It's a 60 hour masterpiece!

James van Maanen, said...

Of course there is, Glenn. (Great TV out there, as you say.) Funny you should bring up The Wire. That's the one series I have been meaning to try for, well, ages. I suspect I will really like it. But it's daunting to think about getting hooked on 60 hours, as you describe it. I loved the first season of Mad Men, though I thought The Sopranos left a lot to be desired. I lasted only 1- 1/2 seasons until -- because after every episode, I kept thinking, Jesus: I just want to see all of these people dead -- I finally realized, Why am I wasting my time here? Six Feet Under was excellent, too. For awhile. For me, almost every series goes downhill. But I do wonder about The Wire. Guess I shall have to try it. Of course everything mentioned here is on cable, which I don't really consider TV....