Taken (2008) dir. Pierre Morel
Starring: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace
How a film like this, with ‘straight-to-DVD’ written all over it, managed to subvert expectations and make a $125million in the box office this year is astounding. It truly is. The fact is, this atrociously scripted minimalist actioner is the type of picture Steven Seagal used to make year after year in the late 80’s, early 90’s - kidnapped daughter brings her former CIA agent father out of retirement to give some major beatdowns to the international baddies du jour.
In “Taken” it’s the Albanians that are up against Seagel... I mean Liam Neeson. The first half hour features some of the worst exposition I’ve seen on film in a while. Liam Neeson is Bryan Mills, a retired military man, divorced from his wife and 17-year-old daughter, now turned annoyingly over-protective father. This backstory is told to us with the subtlety of a blunt hammer. We can almost see the director rolling his eyes at the inconvenience of having to establish these character traits to us, before getting to the action.
Begrudgingly Mills lets his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, 25, playing a 17 year old??) go to Paris on a trip with her friend. Once in Paris, while on a phone call to Daddy, she is kidnapped. Mills immediately goes into military mode and uses his lifetime of skills and training to track down the baddies.
It’s a slogging 30mins to get through before the film really begins. Then, instantly brainchild co-writer Luc Besson and his director Pierre Morel bring the film to life. Like Jack Bauer, Mills becomes robotically obsessive about every detail of evidence he has. With not much more than a scratchy cell phone recording of the kidnapper saying ‘Good Luck’, Mills manages to systematically retrace Kim’s movements from her hotel room to the dingy brothels of Paris.
Neeson is impressive in his brainless action debut. Morel directs the action well making him look as good as Seagal but without the blackbelt and ponytail. Mills’ rampage of revenge is appropriately violent and unrelenting. Morel shows us exactly what we want to see – Neeson kicking major Albanian ass all over the place, whether it’s bone-breaking hand-to-hand combat, violent gun battles or car chases, Mills is consistently merciless.
It’s difficult to justify “Taken” truly as anything but a terrible movie, but something Todd Hallowell, one of Ron Howard’s producers, once told me in an interview about Howard’s philosophy of watching movies, “a good film is one that delivers on it’s own promise. Whatever genre, whatever it is, if it delivers on what it promised you, it’s a good film. It might not be a great film, but at least it delivered on what it said it would do.” Tempering the atrocious scripting and real-world logic with the impressive unforgiving intensity of Mill’s journey, a surprisingly decent film emerges. But a $125m film?
I think Luc Besson has become the Roger Corman of our time. After quitting directing, in the 2000’s he’s become a factory of successful euro-action flicks as writer and producer. In “Taken” there’s a deceptive intelligence in how Besson manufactures its success. As a Frenchman, he exploits America’s hatred of his own people as the one of the main audience attractions of the film. It’s clear the success of this film in the U.S. is partly due to the idea of a single American man, using his American military training to best the entire country of ineffectual Frenchmen. It would seem an unpatriotic treacherous manoeuvre for Besson, but with $125million box office bank, the joke is definitely not on him.
“Taken” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment