Friday, January 30, 2009
Taken is a revenge/rescue film in which former spy Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) must call upon his old skills to save his daughter from Albanian mobsters who have nabbed her for their sex slave business. Mills is divorced from Lenore (Famke Janssen) and quit the spy biz in order to be closer to his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). But Lenore's married into money and Mills has to compete with a wealthy step dad who can afford to give Kim a horse for her birthday. Against Mills' advice, Lenore lets Kim go on a summer trip to Europe. Of course dad's worst fears come true and Kim's kidnapped and daddy has to come to the rescue.
Give me my daughter back or I'll kill you, heck I'll kill you no matter waht. Liam Neeson in Taken (Europa/20th Century Fox)
Taken is loaded with clich es beginning with the contrived divorce dynamics (bitchy ex-wife, under-appreciative child, rich new step-parent, etc.) that are necessary to put all the plot elements in place. Add to that more contrived maneuvering to place Mills as a bodyguard for a pop star that he unprofessionally solicits for advice for Kim who claims to have singing aspirations. Then the pop star just happens to get attacked on his watch and his heroism in saving her makes her feel all warm and fuzzy toward Mills and his daughter. All this must be put into place so that it can pay off predictably at the end. This over-scripting by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen makes Taken feel weighted down by plodding plot details, and that's before Kim's even been snatched by the Albanian baddies.
The problem with Taken is that it wants to straddle two styles of action film: gritty procedural thrillers ( Zodiac, American Gangster ) and over the top pop action ( Live Free or Die Hard, Wanted ). If you want to go for a thriller grounded in reality than you have to play by those rules. It's fine to break those rules and stretch credibility but then you have to accept the consequences and be prepared to be taken less seriously. But if you try to mix the two you can end up with a frustrating mess like Taken . I'm willing to make any leap of faith for a film; give me the most outlandish premise and I'll buy into it. But in return the film has to maintain the universe it creates and not give me cause to pause and re-think my suspension of disbelief. Taken constantly pauses to remind me how far it's stretching reality.
Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen and Liam Neeson in Taken (Europa/20th Century Fox)
Early on in the film, Morel shows Mills creasing the wrapping paper on his daughter's gift with extreme precision. This is meant to inform us that he is someone who pays keen attention to detail (I guess no one told the prop person that because when the package shows up at the birthday party it's not so precisely wrapped). And in case we don't get the point, one of the characters points out how attentive Mills is to detail. I just wish the filmmakers were as attentive to small details, then Taken would have been a stronger film.
District B13 played fast and loose with reality. You had to suspend your disbelief continually. But Morel told his tale with such flair and vigor that you didn't question what was going on. It was over the top and made no apologies for stretching credibility. He basically said, if you're willing to throw reality out the window, I'll take you for one helluva fun ride. But in Taken , Morel tries to play it straight and deliver a realistic thriller or at least the pretenses of one. So with that tone, the repeated strains on credibility stand out. Most egregious is a scene in which Neeson, posing as his French friend Jean-Claude, walks up to a group of Albanian immigrants, whips out his friend's French business card and proceeds to interrogate the men in English. Why would a Frenchman speak English to a bunch of Albanians in France? And if he did wouldn't that provoke suspicion on their part? It's not like the French director Morel couldn't handle doing a scene in French. He has plenty of other scenes in French and in Albanian so it couldn't be that he was afraid to use subtitles, and if Mills worked in France before he would most likely be able to speak the language. That scene pulled me out of the story, and that's a bad thing.
Liam Neeson and Famke Janssen in Taken (Europa/20th Century Fox)
There are other ridiculous things, like Mills being able to recognize someone based on hearing two words or being able to send one recorded phone call to a spook friend and immediately finding out who the person was grabbing his daughter and that they were Albanians involved in human trafficking and that he had exactly 96 hours to find her or she would be gone forever. Wow with speedy info like that I'm surprised he didn't get a DNA profile and photo sent over his iPhone as well. We're also asked to believe that this supposedly savvy spy would choose to chase one suspect that he has little chance of catching while leaving behind an unconscious suspect who, once he came to, could have helped him.
Also annoying was the erratic use of violence. I understand that there's a hard R version of the film available. But the problem I have is that sometimes Mills is a total badass who will exercise lethal means to get what he wants but then he inexplicably turns humane and leaves baddies knocked out but not dead. Mills doesn't hesitate to take a tied up suspect out, someone who is in no position to get in his way so the violence is just an act of revenge (which is perfectly satisfying). Yet when he boards a boat with a bunch of Arabs he's careful not to kill them even though they are even more deserving of lethal vengeance from Mills. If you are going to make Mills a badass, then make him a badass! I love the fact that he calmly and ruthlessly shoots an innocent woman to get information he wants. That reveals something about his character and turns this cool professional into an outraged father who's taking this whole thing very personal.
What could have freshened this film up would have been to show Mills in the field as a professional spy and exhibiting a sense of morality about using torture, and then contrasting that with his personal vendetta to save and avenge his daughter, and his willingness to throw that moral compass away at that time. Then there could be a more interesting arc to his character. Or maybe Besson (who gave us La Femme Nikita ) could have let the mom be the ex-operative and have her go out after her child. Then it wouldn't merely be a father outraged over what's happened to his daughter but a woman outraged by the victimization of other women as well as her daughter. If Taken had made its story work my mind wouldn't have wandered to other more interesting possibilities.
The action in Taken is solid but without the innovative kinetic energy of the Parkour that was used in District B13 . Morel is a very competent director but he can't overcome the flawed script. The same goes for Liam Neeson. He endows Mills with a fierce determination and cold, hard effectiveness for getting things done. He conveys the anguish of a father who can't allow himself to think he might fail. But Neeson can only compensate so much for the shortcomings of the script. Besson and Kamen conveniently make Mills smart when they need him to advance the story, and dumb when they need to slow things up. Even with those contrivances, Neeson is really the only actor who gets to create anything remotely resembling a real character. Everyone else -- from Janssen's one-dimensional wife to Mills' spy buddies inserted solely to provide plot exposition - is no more than a cardboard cutout standing in for where real people should be.
Taken (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing thematic material, sexual content, some drug references and language) let me down. Maybe I was expecting too much from Morel but Taken failed to deliver hardcore action or a satisfying dramatic thriller. It's a tried and true revenge tale of an outraged father a la George C. Scott in Hardcore Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard . My advice, skip this and go out and rent District B13 - it provides a genuine rush for action junkies.
Companion viewing: District B13, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Hardcore, Live Free or Die Hard, Shame (Australia)