Director: John Singleton
Screenwriter: Shawn Christensen
Length: 1h 46m
Synopsis: Nathan (Lautner) is a teenage boy who after finding his photo on a missing persons website has begun to suspect that his parents Kevin (Isaacs) and Mara (Bello) aren’t who they claim to be. The night they come clean is when strange men break into their house and try to kidnap Nathan, however he and his friend Karen (Collins), who just happened to be visiting, are able to escape. The strange men work for a Russian mercenary group and believe Nathan holds something of value to them. Because of their involvement Nathan and Karen are also being chased by the CIA, who claim to want to help. Not knowing who to trust the teenaged duo decide to do what they can to stay alive on their own and discover the truth for themselves. Unfortunately, they aren’t bound to like what they find.
Analysis: To begin, I shall make a gripe that might be viewed by some to be more admissible than the ones listed in the paragraphs below. That gripe, put simply, is that the narrative structure of this wannabe action-thriller is not as polished as it arguably should be. Indicative of its crudeness is the mishandling of the MacGuffin (or item which all main characters are fighting to possess) designed to push the story forward. Much of the issue is that this MacGuffin – originally thought to be Nathan himself – isn’t introduced until around the halfway point. The result of this is that much of what occurs up to that point does not seem playfully misdirected but rather frustratingly lacking in direction. As the proverb goes, timing is everything. Had the real MacGuffin been revealed closer to the beginning our interest might have been able to subsist on dramatic irony, or if the reveal occurred during the climax there could have perhaps been some sort of clever twist. What we get from this narrative design, however, is a plot device that seems forced, draining the story of what little interest it accrued instead of infusing it with more.
Another shortcoming is the function of Nathan’s female companion, Karen. Or, to be more on point, the shortcoming is that she doesn’t seem to have any real function. She is surely very fetching, and if we’re being lenient then she really need not help advance the plot at all (which she doesn’t), but if she wasn’t intended to thicken the plot she should at least work to help build Nathan’s character. For instance, it is customary (however regrettably so) in many action movies for a female companion like Karen to act as the damsel in distress in order to allow the heroic male star to showcase his masculinity. Misleadingly, she does at times find herself in jeopardy, but Nathan does not – safe for one quick instance – use these opportunities to display physical prowess, bravery, or even good timing. So if she doesn’t aid the plot or help play up the male lead’s machismo by having him regularly save her, then surely her point is to help goad him into having a personal revelation that separates his character’s condition at the end of the film from its condition at the onset, conveying a growth in maturity or spiritual standing that substantiates the purpose of the story, right? Unfortunately, not even this is the case. What growth Nathan does experience, which isn’t much, is not thanks to anything Karen does or says. The best female action companions accomplish all three of these things (I’m looking at you Jamie Lee Curtis), and the bad ones accomplish at least one (ex. most Bond Girls). Disappointingly, Collins’ Karen accomplishes none.
And now I must make two gripes which may strike you as petty, especially if you read my reviews with any regularity, but I cannot help myself. Firstly, the ploy about Nathan living with people who are, unbeknownst to him, not his biological parents is one of the dumbest setups to a thriller since Rubber, and it’s entirely because of the casting. Maria Bello and Jason Isaacs are fine actors, but to even entertain the idea that Taylor Lautner was birthed from them is just silly. And that it took until his character was nearly eighteen to figure out he looked nothing like them is comical. Lautner does in fact have a mostly European heritage, but his distant Native American roots show too prominently to even briefly pretend he was bred by two people who look like Bello and Isaacs. I have actually defended castings like this in the past, but such castings were either for fantasy films (where one’s suspension of disbelief is preparedly obstinate), period pieces, or American remakes of foreign films. For thrillers where it’s supposed to come as a shock to the main character that he has been living with foster parents his whole life, though, one is not far from being encouraged to think of that character as being just plain stupid, and consequently not deserving of much interest. And finally, my last little gripe is about the title. Do not be fooled. At no point in the story or plot is anyone ever abducted. Nathan’s fake parents were given secret custody of him by his father, but that’s not technically abduction. So why the title? I imagine it’s because Taylor Lautner Takes His Shirt Off A Lot sounded too unambiguous.