Director : Pierre Morel
Screenplay : Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Liam Neeson (Bryan Mills), Maggie Grace (Kim), Leland Orser (Sam), Jon Gries (Casey), David Warshofsky (Bernie), Katie Cassidy (Amanda), Holly Valance (Sheerah), Xander Berkeley (Stuart), Famke Janssen (Lenore)
On the narrative level, Taken is a fairly routine action thriller about a retired CIA operative who is forced to break out his tools and flex his old skills when his virginal teenage daughter is kidnapped abroad by human traffickers. There is little to distinguish it from dozens of interchangeable straight-to-DVD concoctions except for the fact that is stars Liam Neeson, who brings an immediate sense of heavyweight gravitas to what could have easily been a lightweight central role filled by any run-of-the-mill B-list action star. Once you put the man who has played Oskar Schindler, Michael Collins, Rob Roy, Jean Valjean, and Qui-Gon Jinn--vastly disparate roles, to be sure, but all of which are unified by their underlying intensity--the film is inherently transformed into something meatier. It gives the illusion of emotional depth and complexity where, in fact, there is none, but it’s still an effective ploy.
Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite live up to the dramatic heft provided by its star. Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, who are now on their seventh collaboration after The Fifth Element (1997), Kiss of the Dragon (2001), Bandidas (2006), and the three Transporter films (2002–2008), Taken is fueled primarily by its sense righteous vengeance, which is highly contagious, especially in desperate times when audiences are looking for a cathartic release. Besson and Kamen provide plenty of irredeemable bad guys, including a group Armenian thugs who do the kidnapping, a group of soulless international businessmen (including an American) who wear tuxedoes and sip champagne while buying human bodies, and a corpulent Middle Eastern sheik whose wallowing girth marks him as the epitome of consumption takent to its grotesquely logical end. It’s a rogue’s gallery of depravity at all income levels, and Neeson’s Bryan Mills blasts his way through all of them.
Yet, that is precisely where the film comes up short. At virtually every turn it feels like it’s pulling punches and not delving into the potentially dangerous visual terrain its story and its attendant emotions are screaming for (part of this may be due to the editing of the film’s international version to earn a PG-13 rating for U.S. distribution, but my gut tells me the film is missing more than just a few seconds on the cutting room floor). The violence is quite brutal and Mills proves that he is not above shooting an arguably innocent woman (in the arm, but still ...) if it means he has a better chance of recovering his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). But director Pierre Morel, one of Besson’s protégés, keeps the violence visually restrained, which puts it in direct conflict with the film’s underlying emotional premise. Besson has always had a soft spot for killers with a heart (see, especially, 1994’s Leon), and Mills fits right in that category.
When we first meet him, he is first and foremost a father who has given up his dangerous black ops career to get closer to Kim, but finds that he is constantly one-upped by his wife (Famke Janssen), who is one of those mothers who is constantly trying to be “cool,” and her wealthy husband (Xander Berkeley). There is genuine heart in the film’s early scenes, and we feel the pain that Mills feels when he is confronted with the gap between him and his daughter, which is what makes his determination to recover her stick emotionally. When she is kidnapped, she happens to be on the phone with him, and the cool, steady manner in which he directs her actions to give him the best chance of tracking her hums with tension because we sense the conflict between his emotionality as a father and his level-headed professionalism as a former black ops agent. In those moments, the two sides of his personality become fused, which turns his necessarily violent responses into something more than just action movie fare. It’s paternal love turned vicious, and if Morel had found a way to translate that emotional visually and make it truly sting, Taken might have verged on something profoundly visceral, rather than just duly entertaining.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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