by Scott Mendelson
Usually when someone opines ‘oh, they don’t make them like this anymore’, they are paying a sort of high compliment, as if said film represents a lost form of quality. But Taken absolutely fits the bill of the kind of movies that they ‘just don’t make anymore’. But it’s no classic; in fact it’s not even all that good. But it is something all-too rare in the post-Columbine/post-Lieberman FCC hearings: a mid-budgeted, star-driven, violent thriller. That Fox edited it down to a PG-13 by slightly toning down the blood and gore doesn’t make it any less of a trashy relic of a bygone era. And, by keeping the action fast, brutal, and plausible, the film succeeds in actually being a superior update on those 80s relics like Commando.
A token amount of plot – Bryan Mills’ daughter (Maggie Grace) is going away with a friend to Paris, much to her father’s consternation. Since Bryan (Liam Neeson) is an ex-spy, he’s a little more paranoid than most. Alas, his instincts turn out to be correct when Kim and her friend are almost immediately kidnapped by human traffickers. Now Bryan has 96 hours to get to France and use his ‘special set of skills’ to get his daughter back before she truly disappears into the underground realm of the international sex trade.
To director Pierre Morel ‘s credit, nearly a third of the short running time is used to set up the relationships and characters before heading into the chase. We get a good look at the somewhat overtly forward relationship that Bryan has with his daughter and ex-wife (Famke Janssen, who is given absolutely nothing to do), and the peacemaking attempts by the new husband (Xander Berkley, who gets about six lines of dialogue). We get a sampling of his talents when he accepts a quick gig to protect a famous pop star, and we get a couple fun scenes of him cooking burgers with some old spy buddies. By the time the kidnapping occurs, the relationships are established enough that the last hour of pure chase and action aren’t completely pointless.
The abduction scene itself is the best scene in the film, but if you’re lucky enough to have avoided the thrill-spilling trailer, I won’t ruin it here. The rest of the film follows a regular investigate, interrogate, chase and kill motif found in films like Target or Man on Fire. The violence isn’t nearly as grisly as Man on Fire, and the film making is less stylized as well. Oddly enough, since it was made by French filmmakers, the film has a distinct whiff of Europhobia. Foreigners come in exactly three varieties: scary (the French), scarier (the Albanians), and scariest (the Arabs). One could argue that the French filmmakers are casting their immigrant brothers as boogiemen as a form of ethnic bigotry, but any history on that would require more research than this film deserves.
Despite a strong first act, the film never really pays off on the issues that are brought up. While Bryan is right to worry about his daughter’s safety, one could argue that she would have been more honest with him and more helpful if he hadn’t been so controlling in the first place. And while it’s refreshing that Xander Berkley doesn’t turn out to be the secret bad guy, his casting in a glorified cameo creates a giant red herring that hangs over the movie right up until the climax.
What makes the film work is the commanding lead performance from Liam Neeson. This is a wonderfully blunt, thoroughly compelling star turn. Bryan’s single-mindedness and lack of compassion for anyone stupid enough to get in the way is a nice change of pace from the recent spate of introspective, self-loathing action heroes (Jason Bourne probably would have wept amidst the carnage… ‘look what you foreign meanies made me give!’). Neeson looks incredibly young and fit (which I suppose justifies 25-year old Grace playing a 17-year old), and he’s obviously relishing the chance to play a cold-blooded action bad ass. If the film does well enough, this could easily turn into a Liam Neeson franchise.
If this were the 1980s, movies like Taken would be a nearly bi-weekly occurrence. But now even Paramount (previously the home of the star-driven thriller) would rather risk $150 million on GI Joe than spend $40 million on another sure-to-be profitable Alex Cross movie. Thus, such genre exercises are in short supply. So while Taken does not quite qualify as ‘good’, it does work as ‘good fun’. It’s lean, mean, and occasionally stupid in that old fashioned way.
Like Pierre Morel’s previous film, District B13, this is both incredibly silly and quite fun (alas, Liam Neeson doesn’t get to perform parkour). Like the Jason Statham/Jet Li action film War (for which Morel was the cinematographer for American director Philip G. Atwell), this is the kind of movie that we probably shouldn’t give a pass to, but we miss the genre so much that it feels like a reunion. In the post-Columbine age, far too many cops’ partners have gone un-murdered. And too many unsuspecting daughters of spies and soldiers have freely traveled abroad, unmolested by foreign fiends. Leave it to the French to give Americans what we didn’t realize we were missing.