REVIEW: Taylor Lautner Avoids Poking Himself in the Eye — Barely — in Abduction
It's been established that Taylor Lautner can shuck a mean shirt, but can he hold together an action movie in its lead role? Over the approving shrieks of the Twilight fans in the audience, I'm going to gently suggest that at the moment, the answer is no. As Nathan, the teenage hero of Abduction, Lautner shows he's handy with stunts, many of which he clearly and impressively performs himself, and good with a fight scene. But when it comes to exchanges of dialogue, displays of emotion or just standing around, he's stiff and manifestly uncomfortable -- this may be the first film I've even seen where when an actor goes to put his hand thoughtfully on his chin, it's so awkward I became afraid he'd somehow miss and poke himself in the eye.
Fortunately, John Singleton (whose last feature, aside from his overly sympathetic Marion Jones 30 for 30 doc, was Four Brothers back in 2005) has created a giddily preposterous film, so delinquent in dealing with its dramatic elements they often become the source of unintended laughs. "A few days ago we were only high school kids. It feels like a lifetime ago," intones Nathan's love interest Karen (Lily Collins, daughter of Phil), the girl next door, in a moment of unnecessary reflection. "It was," he answers. Such instances of downtime are rare -- after it's uncovered that not all is as it seems with Nathan's childhood, he and Karen spend most of the film on the run from both surpassingly competent Serbian black ops agents and the CIA. Lautner's allowed to spend a fair amount of the runtime in motion, where he sparks to life in way he just doesn't when called upon to deliver lines.
Nathan has spent his teenage years in suburban bliss outside Pittsburgh. He's on the wrestling team, he seems popular enough, his parents Mara (Maria Bello) and Kevin (Jason Isaacs) are loving but stern when he stays out all night partying, and he has his own motorcycle. If he struggles with sporadic anger issues and is haunted by memories of an unidentifiable woman being murdered in front of him, well, that's what why he sees his shrink, Dr. Bennett (Sigourney Weaver). Instead of playing catch, his father insists on violently sparring with him in the backyard, but any oddness to that hasn't occurred to him, until when researching a class project he and Karen come across a Web site with digitally aged photos of children reported missing, one of which looks a lot like Nathan.
I won't give away the secret of Nathan's background, but let's allow that it raises dozens of questions that are left unanswered in the scarcely sensical universe Abducted occupies. His poking around online summons the unwelcome attention of various agencies who've been keeping an eye out for him, and ominous Eastern Europeans, led by a man named Kozlow (Michael Nyqvist, of the Swedish adaptation of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series), show up at his doorstep to retrieve him for fiendish purposes. Of all the action set pieces the film contains, including one that takes place on a train as part of a plotline abandoned immediately afterward and a climax set during a Pirates baseball game for no reason other than the opportunities for chaos it offers, for me there's none better than the early one in which Mara and Kevin defend the boy they raised, their tastefully appointed house getting leveled in the process. Maria Bello slashing at a tough with garden shears suggests a more complex version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a badass-agents-turned-homemakers back story left only hinted at.
Of course, this isn't a story about Mara and Kevin. It's one about Nathan, and what's notable about the almost-entertaining-enough Abduction, other than the huge part technology plays in its game of chase, is how much it echoes the structure of a young-adult novel -- its grown-ups keep secrets from its underage hero for what they insist is his own good, despite the fact that he's capable and collected and more than able to handle things. If they'd only trusted him, if they'd only just told him the truth! Like Harry Potter and many another YA hero, Nathan is a seemingly ordinary kid who turns out to have elite parentage and is revealed to be of utmost importance to a world of which he was unaware. ("You're getting a glimpse behind the curtain," barks Alfred Molina as a shifty CIA agent.) People, well-intentioned and not, have devoted their lives to trying to find or hide him. The purposes of this battle between deadly operatives on an international stage are at best sketched out, but how essential Nathan is to everyone is never in question -- at one point a villain even threatens him by promising to kill every friend he has on Facebook. What better reassurance that you're the center of the universe in this modern age?