So, in case you haven’t picked it up from my previous posts, I’m a little bit of a dick when it comes to most of the stuff we see up for consumption at the multiplex. When I see a trailer for a thriller with Bruce Willis or Michael Douglas or Harrison Ford I roll my eyes, take a pull from my soft drink, and tap my foot in anticipation for the movie I am actually there to see.
But when I saw the trailer for Taken, the hairs on my arms stood up just a little bit. A really standard, dime-a-dozen thriller with a trailer that is actually cool and creative? No way. Weird and a nice thing to see, but no way.
I was understandably skeptical about the film. It has grossed over 100 million dollars in an age where it is difficult to make a run of the mill thriller do those kinds of numbers, but so what? The masses do tend to eat that shit up, and it is a pretty dead time of the year for movies. One of my friends said he really liked it and kept telling me to take a look. He recommended it one week and I flippantly told him “yeah, whatever, Schindler’s killing people, rah rah.” A couple of weeks later he persisted with his recommendation. I broke down and bought a ticket.
Remember when I said there is a reason people don’t pay me to make big decisions about movies? Yeah, Taken is another example of my not-always-state-of-the-art judgment.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie has problems. It is totally trading on the success of the Bourne films and using some of the more prevalent logic gaps therein as license to be as unbelievable as possible. But when your standards were as low as mine were when watching this film, you tend to let those things slide to the wayside. The movie serves its purpose. It’s fun, well made, and, as my idol Roger Ebert put it, it demonstrates how Liam Neeson can elevate the credibility of certain roles simply by playing them.
Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA man now retired and living in Southern California. He’s moved there to make up for lost time with his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), who now lives with her mother, Mills’ ex (Famke Janssen) and her absurdly wealthy stepfather (Xander Berkley), who fulfills the perennial task of all action movie stepfathers to be a likable guy for everyone except the hero.
Mills and his ex have a stormy relationship. She’s bitter about all the years he spent bouncing from continent to continent on missions, supplying only the rarest of phone calls. Mills is sympathetic, but still wants to be in Kim’s life. He is miffed when she asks to go to Paris for a summer. Mills consents against his better judgment.
And based on Kim managing to get kidnapped on her first day there, his judgment is pretty solid. Masked men break into the apartment where she is staying with a girlfriend and take both of them, but Kim manages to supply some details to Mills over the phone. Mills throws on a tape recorder and is able to pick up some audio of the men’s voices. He sends it to an old CIA contact that puts together some intelligence for him.
Here is where the movie lets itself run free of logic in favor of getting Neeson on his action hero-way: based on the thirty seconds of audio that Mills supplies, the contact is able to determine that the kidnappers are Albanian, traffic women into chattel slavery, addict them to drugs and sell them as prostitutes. And once the person has been missing for 96 hours, there is little hope of ever finding them again. Damn, that intel is sharp. We get the point though. Mills has no time to waste before his daughter is gone FOREVER.
The film, directed by Pierre Morrell and written by Luc Besson (yes, that Luc Besson) and Robert Mark Kamen, sets up Mills with pretty much every skill that he could ever need as an action hero. He’s an expert marksman, investigator, street fighter, contact-maker, brothel-rouster, Albanian-translator–you name the skill and chances are he has probably dabbled in it a time or two. I would have liked to have seen a copy machine break down so that Mills could demonstrate his prowess in that area.
But I’m being flip about a movie that, for all intents and purposes, is really pretty good. I was both surprised and impressed by the ruthlessness that Mills is allowed to possess. Most movies like this require the hero to exercise a certain moral code in fulfilling his objective. Not here. Mills does some pretty hairy things while on the trail to his daughter’s kidnappers. There is a dinner table scene where he faces off with an enemy and puts a bullet in his wife’s arm in order to get some information. He slashes, shoots, fights, and tortures his way through undesirable after undesirable on his way to the big fish. Yes, he does torture, and the particularly gruesome scene where he does it opens up an interesting socio-political can of worms.
Though the film is vague about what he actually did as an operative, we know that Mills has seen action in Afghanistan and probably Iraq. In the affor-mentioned scene, he straps a man to a chair, wires it with electrodes, and gets to it. He makes reference to how power grids in certain countries are always failing and forcing torturers into primitive methods like pulling fingernails. He would have been right at home in Abu Gahrib or Guantanimo.
I don’t know if the film is intending to make a point about the ruthlessness of the war on terror and how it protects innocents like Mills’ daughter, but it adds an interesting weight to his character. Will this develop into a trend of action movies where heroes practice on terrorists and then move their skills to the private sector? A Taken sequel is already in the works, so you never know.
It must be said that Neeson is good in the movie. He obviously gives it more credibility than it probably deserves, but he doesn’t treat the role like a breath of fresh, frivolous air—he really brings soul and intensity to a character that so many other actors would have played as a one-note wax statue.
But it is interesting how much more seriously we take a project like this when an actor like Neeson signs on. Lets face it, if Kate Winslet decided to play Wonder Woman, both the cinema snobs and the fanboys would probably shell out to see it. Taken sets a good example though; when a credible actor like Neeson signs on, the whole project has to step its game up just a little bit.
So again, Taken is proof-positive that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Well, most of the time you can, but there is the occasional diamond in the rough. Though the finished product is a silly action movie, at least it is a self aware silly action movie. Sometimes you do just want to see Qui Gonn Jinn kill some folks.