Monday, March 22, 2010

"Taken," Seriously

"Taken," the Liam Neeson thriller about an ex-Fed rescuing his kidnapped daughter from Albanian sex-slavers in Paris, was one of the surprise hits of early 2008. It's a straightforward, almost absurdly simple film that relishes in a standard one-man-army pursuit of the missing girl and her abductors, punctuated by frequent bursts of expertly choreographed violence. The lack of frills is the film's strength. There are no clever quips or plot twists, and not much exposition at all. The action scenes don't feel like set-pieces, but rather a recurring motif in almost every scene in the second half.

Liam Neeson, mostly associated these days with more peaceable characters like Oskar Schindler and Aslan, is the film's biggest asset. He provides just the right amount of awkward-father vulnerability to get the audience to sympathize with his character, and enough steely British gravitas to get us to buy him as one badass mofo. There's no question that his performance carries the the film, and plays a large part in getting us to ignore all the weaknesses of a very ham-fisted script. With another actor in the role, the film could have been a disaster.

At its heart, "Taken" is a middle-aged male fantasy in the same vein as "Die Hard" or "Death Wish," where all personal problems and societal frustrations can be solved with good old-fashioned brutality, and lots of it. Liam Neeson's character, Brian Mills, starts out as a sad-sack, divorced retiree whose ex-wife Lenore has remarried a wealthy older man. We're told explicitly that he wasn't a very good husband or father to their daughter Kim while employed as a "Preventer," and remains prone to smothering overprotectiveness.

Early scenes of Mills's clumsy attempts to reconnect with his estranged family are tedious and manipulative as the film tries to engage our sympathies. Lenore, played with grating exasperation by Famke Janssen, comes off as shrewish and brusque. Her character is amazingly flimsy, obstinately standing up to Mills regarding his fears about Kim traveling abroad, yet only able to express hystrionics in the face of her daughter's abduction. Twenty-something Maggie Grace is barely credible as seventeen-year-old Kim, and tends to overcompensate by acting even younger.

Once the action and the mayhem start, the film is a much easier to sit through. Director Pierre Morel keeps the pace brisk and the tension high. The fights are in a similar style to those of the "Bourne" films - fast and straightforward, but still kinetic and fun to watch. And there's no shakeycam to distract from the images, so it's easy to follow what's going on. But the moment you start thinking about what Mills is doing, his brute force tactics come across as ridiculous and anarchic.

The audience might get a rush seeing Liam Neeson beating up and gunning down countless black-suited goons, but as he gets further and further into the bowels of his enemies' criminal operations, his actions become very morally questionable. At least twice, he abandons dozens of exploited girls he stumbles across in dimly-lit flophouses. The one girl he does save disappears from the film after providing Mills with a piece of crucial information. And at one particularly low point, he shoots the innocent wife of a crooked police lieutenant in the arm in order to coerce her husband's cooperation.

Frankly, most of the plot developments in the film are ridiculous. You have young female tourists being snatched off the streets of Paris with nary a peep from their parents, the media, or Nancy Grace. International human traffickers enjoy a prosperous existence, aided and abetted by the corrupt French police. There's a lot of xenophobia and fear-mongering in this movie about foreign travel, white slavery, kidnapping rings, and systemic corruption. Backpacking across Europe has never seemed like such a dangerous or foolhardy proposition.

As with most of these one-man-army films, there are few consequences and no downsides to engaging in campaigns of violent retribution. Liam Neeson is threatened several times by the French authorities for disrupting and ignoring the existing justice system, but at the end of the movie, he simply goes home with his daughter. No arrest or other bad end results. And perhaps the most fantastic outcome is the complete evaporation of the tensions between Mills and his ex-wife upon Kim's return. And Kim herself appears to have suffered no trauma, even though her traveling companion died at the hands of their captors and her father has been revealed to be a cold-blooded killer.

I know I expect too much. "Taken" was not made to be taken so seriously, and its story only exists to provide some small justification for fight and stunt sequences, with the occasional explosion in the mix. On that score, it's not a bad picture.

But that doesn't mean it's not also still as dumb as a brick.

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