Taken: Mindless action with daddy issues
Action movies, probably more than any other genre, rely on a good match of actor and character.
Take Die Hard: It’s a classic, and it’s terrific. But swap out Bruce Willis with, say, Tom
Hanks. What do you have? So it is with Taken, which I found off-putting, in part, because I simply cannot buy Liam Neeson as an unstoppable killing machine. I’m not saying I could take the guy in a fist fight. It’s just that, even when he’s dispensing with a room full of armed gangsters, Qui-Gon doesn’t strike me as intimidating. But oh, how he tries in the role of Bryan Mills, a retired secret agent trying to work his way back into the life of his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). After years as a mostly-absentee father, he’s still struggling to resurrect their relationship, so he’s a little more pliant than usual when she begs him for permission to go to Paris for a few weeks with a friend. He relents, and is subsequently horrified when, literally half an hour after her plane lands, Kim and her friend are targeted by a gang of Albanian sex traffickers. This is only the beginning of a ridiculous worst-case scenario that will continue to deteriorate over the next 90 minutes. Luckily for Kim, her dad has “a very special set of skills,” as he puts it in the dreadfully cheesy speech from the film’s trailer, which will allow him to go all Jack Bauer on the thugs who took his little girl. The rest of the film is his frantic attempt to retrace Kim’s path through France’s criminal underworld, and while it’s occasionally exciting, it’s never any fun. Taken is co-written by Luc Besson, who wrote and directed The Professional and The Fifth Element. More recently, however, he was responsible for three separate Transporter movies, so buyer beware. He sticks to his loner/tough-guy motif, this time combining it with a father-daughter relationship to disastrous result. When there’s nothing blowing up, Taken leaves the viewer with too much time ponder some of the films’ less appealing aspects, like its creepy obsession with Kim’s virginity, its blatant xenophobia and its tired, ill-fitting machismo. Some of the film’s issues rest on Neeson’s performance, which doesn’t play to his talents. He’s a fine actor, but he struggles to capture the James Bond level of assuredness the film requires. He doesn’t fit in this character, and he consequently doesn’t connect very well with his co-stars. Not that there’s much to connect with. None of these characters have any depth at all. The villains are standard-issue Swarthy Men with Accents (of course, as the layers of the operation are peeled away, the true bad guys are the super-rich old men who trade young flesh as sport).
The film also has its share of eye-rolling moments owing to the fact that neither Besson nor his co-writer, Robert Mark Kaman, write women or young people particularly well. Maggie Grace, who looks 25, is cast as a 17-yearold and written as a 12-year-old. She’s helpless and infantile, and doesn’t possess anything resembling a personality; she’s just waiting desperately until the knight in shining armor arrives to save the day. And that’s the film’s big problem. All of the characters, good or bad, exist for one reason: to make Neeson’s character look awesome. The dozens of gangsters, Bryan’s daughter, his ex-wife and her new, rich husband, whose money won’t buy him cojones — none of them have a perspective or any real function. Everyone in this film is either waiting to be impressed by Bryan or killed by him. So Taken ultimately offers very little: a few solid action sequences, an unhealthy fantasy for parents and children alike, and piles of dead Albanians. The same basic story is available dozens of other places — Commando springs immediately to mind — without the psychologically questionable undercurrents.
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