How this atrociously scripted minimalist actioner, the type of picture Steven Seagal used to make year after year in the ’90s - kidnapped daughter brings her former CIA agent father out of retirement to give some major beatdowns to the international baddies du jour - managed to make $125 million at the US box office and generate a theatrical sequel is kind of astounding. Until you watch the film and marvel at the filmmakers' ability to tap into the post-9/11 fears of many Americans in this increasingly hostile global world. That, and an immeasurable kind of cinematic momentum, narrative focus and precision.
Taken (2008) dir. Pierre Morel
Starring: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace
by Alan Bacchus
In Taken it’s the Albanians that are up against Seagal... 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 30 minutes to get through before the film really begins. Its plodding nature arguably aids the picture, setting us up for failure, but then delivering a film so utterly badass thrilling it's a shock. After Kim is 'Taken', 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 action debut, Morel directing the action well and making Neeson look as good as Seagal but without the black belt 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 I remember something Todd Hallowell, one of Ron Howard’s producers, told me in an interview about Howard’s philosophy of watching movies - “A good film is one that delivers on its 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.”
I think Luc Besson has become the Roger Corman of our time. After supposedly 'quitting' directing in the 2000s (he's since come out of retirement) he’s become a factory of successful euro-action flicks as writer and producer and launched the careers of many young directors. In Taken there’s a deceptive and perhaps unintentional intelligence in how Besson manufactures its success. As a Frenchman, he exploits America’s hatred of his own people as 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 an entire country of ineffectual Frenchmen. It would seem an unpatriotic treacherous manoeuvre for Besson, but with $125 million at the box office, the joke is definitely not on him.