Monday, June 8, 2009

Yes, Dammit, I Liked the Movie: "Taken"

Taken may be the best bad movie that I have ever seen. This may take some explaining. The script and acting are generally mediocre, the plotline is pandering and the violence meaningless. And did I mention how many clichés the film evokes? Despite being shot in Paris by a Frenchman, the filmmakers managed to work in a gutless Frenchman out of an anti-Vichy propaganda film.

And yet Taken is one of the most satisfying films I have seen in years. The plot is simple: Ex-CIA “preventer” of bad things Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has moved back to the United States to get back in touch with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who lives with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). Kim goes on a trip to Paris. Kim gets kidnapped. Mills has ninety-six hours in which to shoot, throttle, torture, and beat various Very Bad People to get his daughter back from the sex slavers who have taken her.

The most famous scene in Taken occurs near the beginning of the film. Liam Neeson’s character is talking on the phone to his daughter, who hides under a Parisian bed as a group of kidnappers look for her. The kidnappers find her, and Neeson gives a stirring speech into the phone, a speech that ends with a vow that “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.” For the rest of the movie, he does exactly that. Thankfully, Neeson’s speech, featured in all the film’s trailers and on the movie’s poster, is not the coolest portion of the film. Bryan Mills’ vengeance lives up to his vow – In the next seventy minutes, dozens of heartless and nameless criminals get hit by trucks, electrocuted, knifed, shot, and otherwise liquidated.

Taken was not a particularly expensive film to make; the budget was apparently less than $30 million. I think this actually works to the film’s advantage; director Pierre Morel couldn’t go overboard with the explosions and set pieces – though Our Hero at one point claims he would “tear down the Eiffel Tower” (!) to get his daughter back, there aren’t too many buildings collapsing in our hero’s wake. Indeed, I only recall one or two explosions in the entire film, and even those fireworks are fairly small. Instead of burning down half the city with CGI, Taken emphasizes brutal fist- and gun-fights. Though there’s not too much blood, Taken nevertheless feels like a “hard” PG-13. The movie, after all, features, amongst other things, sex slavers, prostitution, drug abuse, torture, and quite a few bullets to heads.

Liam Neeson really makes Taken. He’s lean and gruff enough to be believable as the cunning and brutal killer Bryan Mills, but he’s also a good enough actor to be believable – and even endearing – as a father trying to get back into his daughter’s life. He makes us wince at the faux-pas he makes in civilian life and cheer when he dispatches the bad guys.

A lot has been made of Taken’s resemblance to the TV series 24. Both Taken and 24 feature US government operatives forced to torture, maim, and kill to save their pretty daughters named Kim. Yet Taken’s departures from the 24 formula are what make it so much more enjoyable than the TV show. For one thing, Taken is fast-paced and focused; the film has no equivalent of 24’s tedious side plots (Taken’s Kim never runs into a mountain lion). I don’t think Neeson ever utters that irritating 24 catchphrase “within the hour.” Bryan Mills is also much more efficient than poor Jack Bauer, who never really seems to resolve anything until the last episode of the season. Jack’s enemies tend to escape and initiate new plans; once someone ends up in Mills’ clutches, they are generally as good as dead.

Perhaps the biggest departure from 24, however, is Taken’s lack of moral ambiguity. Mills does some nasty things, to be sure, but he never seems to feel guilt or ambivalence about what he does. He even makes a few morbid jokes as he’s about to torture one of his daughter’s kidnappers. The audience gets to cheer for the violence without ever considering the morality of that violence. There’s one scene where Mills hurts an innocent, it’s true, but the film makes it clear that such injury was a necessary evil and that the person in question will suffer no long-term physical damage.

Spoilers coming up.

I know some critics have praised Taken for its “traditional” values, but there are a few aspects of the movie I think one really must take exception to. For one thing, the hero of the film, though generally likable, is disturbingly cold-hearted at times, most notably when he tortures one of the slavers with electric shocks. Once he gets the information he needs, he turns the electricity back on and walks out of the room while his victim screams. On some level, all revenge movies are built on the audience’s sadistic and vindictive tendencies, but this particular scene was particularly unpleasant.

The other issue I have with Taken involves the hero’s daughter Kim and her ill-fated traveling companion. The daughter, the script reminds us at least twice, is a virgin. Given this is a wish-fulfillment film, Kim stays that way to the end of the film. The daughter’s traveling companion Amanda seems fairly promiscuous; she ends up a dead of a drug overdose. If they hadn’t spent so much time establishing Kim’s virginity, perhaps Amanda’s death wouldn’t have played like an eighties’ slasher film, where anyone horny must die. The whole “Kim, Amanda, and Sex” subplot is by far the most awkward part of the script.

End of spoilers.

As I hope my review has made clear, I had some major issues with Taken. But for all its flaws, I still really liked the movie. It may not change the way you look at cinema or even reinvent action movies, but it is a lot of fun. It’s not an enduring work of art, but it’s a fine piece of craftsmanship.

So, should you see Taken? My advice: Watch the trailer. If it gets you at all pumped, put it at the top of your Netflix queue. There’s a lot more awesome where that came from.

1 comment:

Ride Against AIDS said...

By best bad movie you have ever seen, you just mean best movie you have ever seen, right? Because, let's get real for a minute. Liam Neeson + Paris + hot daughter + sweet fighting scenes = fantastic. 299 on the 300 scale.