The early part of a film year can be… interesting. Everyone knows what to expect from the summer (blockbusters) and everyone knows what to expect from the late fall and early winter (prestige pictures), but what about the other seasons? The later part of winter and early spring are often used as dumping grounds for the movies that studios didn’t think could compete during the more competitive parts of the year. That means that there’s a lot of crap coming out, but it can also be an exciting time to watch from a distance. Patterns established decades ago tend to play out during the summer and fall, but these dumping periods tend to be a lot less predictable. Movies can come out of nowhere and be surprise successes and surprise hits. One such effort is the journeyman action film Taken, an unpretentious thriller that had been released months earlier in Europe but which finally found a U.S. release late in the January of 2009. The modest production ended up making almost a hundred and fifty million dollars at the box office, surprising analysts everywhere.
The party who has been “taken” is a seventeen year old named Kim (Maggie Grace), the daughter of an ex-CIA agent named Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson). The kidnapping occurs shortly after she lands in Paris to go on a European vacation. Mills had objected to this trip but reluctantly allowed it to happen in order to please Kim and look less over protective to his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). The moment he learns that his daughter has been kidnapped he immediately springs into action and runs off to Europe to save her. There he must investigate the world of forced prostitution in order to save the one he loves.
From that summery I bet you can tell what the movie’s biggest problem is: incredible unoriginality. This “rescue the kidnapped daughter” scenario is the oldest action movie cliché in the book. We can all probably name a million movies which have this exact same plot and what’s worse is that this movie doesn’t even do the smallest thing in order to give this some kind of original twist. There are no surprise revelations, no twists you didn’t see coming, not even a remotely different interpretation of the situation, just the same tired revenge fantasy we’ve all seen a million times; this is formulaic filmmaking through and through.
Additionally the film has undertones that are not entirely savory. Many have seen the fact that Kim is kidnapped immediately after she leaves the United States as evidence of Xenophobia. This argument does not really hold much water with me, mainly because it was produced and co-written by Luc Besson and directed by Pierre Morel who are both residents of the country that the movie supposedly vilifies. What really concerns me is not the film’s view of France, but rather the view it seems to have of the Eastern Europeans involved in the kidnapping. The idea of a film using immigrants as its villain isn’t in and of itself offensive, but we all know the long sad history of the protection of white women being used as a means of vilifying a group of people and some of the way these foreign criminals are depicted seems a little leery to me. Even more disturbing is that the Neeson character has a view of torture that would make Jack Bauer blush, the way the film uses the kidnapping to justify this kind of brutality is tenuous at best.
I’ll grant the film that its action scenes are fairly well shot and choreographed, but they’re not much more original or ambitious than the film’s story. We’re given a run of the mill SUV chase, a decent car chase, some standard gunplay, and some fast paced fight scene that look a hell of a lot like the fights from the Bourne series. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these set pieces, they just do not innovate and they do not equal the best this genre has to offer.
Pretty much the only thing in this entire movie that rises above the level of average is the performance of Liam Neeson. Action movies of this caliber usually star the likes of Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme, but Liam Neeson is a legitimate actor and his casting was a really smart way of elevating this material. Neeson is the kind of actor who can avoid being the kind of stone faced steroid freak who personified 80s action while also not being the kind of whiney twenty-somethings that have been populating action flicks these days.
There is mild enjoyment to be gained from Taken, but rather than spending your time with it I strongly recommend checking out a David Mamet movie called Spartan. Spartan is also a movie about a determined agent trying to find a kidnapped teenager, but it is significantly smarter, more original, and better written; in general it puts Taken to shame. If you rent Spartan you’ll be on the edge of your seat trying to guess where it will go next, if you rent Taken you’ll get a very strong sense of déjà vu.
**1/2 out of Four