Taken is the latest in the neo-Eurospy genre being almost single-handedly propagated by Luc Besson’s Europa Corp. As these films start to trickle out at a rate of more than the previous one-per-year, they also begin to diversify. Even though it’s written by the same team of Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, Taken has a harder edge to it than their Transporter movies... but not much. While those movies are dedicated to extreme over-the-top action shenanigans seemingly inspired by the Roger Moore era of James Bond, Taken takes its cue from the contemporary Bourne films.
While the film ultimately amounts to a really good time for action fans, its beginning isn’t promising. Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative (more of a "preventor" than a spy, he claims) who’s retired in order to move to Los Angeles where he can be closer to his seventeen-year-old daughter. He feels like he’s missed out on most of her childhood, and now wants to make up for lost time. We know all this because the characters state it explicitly, again and again. The resulting conversation when three of Bryan’s old colleagues arrive at his apartment for a barbecue was aptly paraphrased by my friend T-Bone upon leaving the theater as: "Remember when we were all in the CIA together? Boy, that sure was a good time working in the CIA together. Bryan, do you ever miss working in the CIA? We sure had fun working in the CIA together." These buddies have now moved into the private sector, and recruit Bryan to help them guard a pop star, resulting in a rather awkward scene of him asking said pop star for advice for his daughter, who wants to be a singer. This shows us that he’s a caring father, in case we had trouble reading the earlier shorthand of him poring over a scrapbook of his daughter’s past birthdays.
The seventeen-year-old daughter, Kim (are all badass spys' daughters named Kim?), is played by twenty-five-year-old Maggie Grace, from Lost. Grace is horribly miscast. She attempts to rectify the age discrepancy by overcompensating in the other direction, and playing Kim as if she’s ten. She literally bounds around, propelling herself at her father like a young child and later sulking and throwing a childish tantrum when Dad won’t sign some papers allowing her to travel out of the country. (Anyone know if such papers are really necessary?) Bryan is very worried, you see, about the idea of his daughter going off to Scary Paris. And it turns out he has good cause to be! The moral of Besson’s anti-travelogue appears to be, "If you travel to Paris, you will unfailingly be kidnapped and sold into sex slavery."
Former Bond Girl Famke Janssen is criminally wasted as Kim’s indulgent mother, but she does manage to convince a reluctant Bryan to let their daughter go on her trip. As soon as Kim and her friend Amanda step off the plane in Paris, however, all of Bryan’s worst fears are confirmed. They’re met by a handsome stranger with ulterior motives who tricks them into showing him where they’re staying. Then they’re abducted by his cronies to be sold into sex slavery.
Kim happens to be on the phone with her father as this abduction takes place (at his insistence that she call him all the time), leading to the scene we’ve all seen again and again in the trailers where he instructs her to shout out all the details she can notice about her captors into the phone as she’s being dragged away. One of the captors picks up the phone, and Bryan tells him he doesn’t have any money, but he does have a very specialized skill set. And unless this guy lets his daughter go right now, he vows to come to Paris, find him and kill him. Neeson delivers this ultimatum perfectly, and we realize that from here on in we’re in for a hell of a ride. As soon as Grace is safely off-screen and Bryan is snapped from wussy father mode into unstoppable man-on-a-mission mode, the movie kicks into high gear and you forget all about its dodgy beginning.
Once in Paris, Bryan uses his few clues about the kidnappers’ identities to lay waste to the appropriate parts of the city. Liam Neeson seems like an unlikely choice for this genre (in what in the Nineties would have been a Van Damme role), but acquits himself more than admirably! Director Pierre Morel actually lets the fight scenes play out before our eyes, rather than cutting so rapidly that you can’t tell what’s going on. Therefore, the actor can’t really fake it. It’s clear that it’s really Neeson (now as old as Roger Moore was in his last Bond outing) showing off some very impressive fight moves. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; he’s proven before that he can wield a sword and a lightsaber, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him engaging in contemporary hand-to-hand combat since Darkman! (Even in Batman Begins most of his fighting seemed more Rob Roy than Jason Bourne.)
Make no mistake: Bryan Mills is a badass. He tears through the Albanian mafia–and anyone else who stands in his way–like a slightly less friendly version of Jack Bauer. He even out-Jacks Jack in one truly unexpected moment that had the whole audience gasping. Taken is the movie I wish that 24: Redemption could have been! Like Bauer’s, Mills’s methods are not subtle. But he is righteous, which means that we’ll root for him no matter what unpleasantness he gets up to. The movie goes out of its way to make the bad guys as bad as possible and Bryan’s cause as noble as possible. They’ve taken his daughter, and they’re going to sell her into sex slavery! That scenario gives this well-trained former spy a license to kill more undeniable than any government could ever issue, so the audience is always with him, and rooting for the bad guys to get what’s coming to them. It’s akin to the vigilante/revenge genre that Charles Bronson jump-started in the Seventies and Eighties, but the hero here seems even more righteous because he has an attainable goal and isn’t just out for retribution. And as we see, he’s willing to go to any length to rescue the daughter he loves, cutting through friend and foe with equal ruthlessness if necessary.
In his quest, Bryan gets into car chases, fist fights, knife fights and shootouts, and gets up to dirty tricks and torture. "I’ll tear down the Eiffel Tower if I have to!" he swears to his former colleague, now a French police official interested in keeping his city as free of murder and destruction as possible. Bryan doesn’t actually do any harm to the Eiffel Tower, but he does manage to break a few more minor buildings, as well as several cars, a boat, and a whole lot of people.
Taken is more serious and a bit nastier than the Transporter movies, but it retains their mantra that action comes first, and that action should be discernible. Pierre Morel does a great job keeping the story moving quickly and the action impressive and easy to follow at the same time. (Only one fight, towards the end, suffers from the current trend of overly rapid editing.) Taken is to Bourne and 24 what Transporter 3 is to Roger Moore’s Bond. It proves that today, as in the Sixties, lower-budget "second tier" spy movies can often be just as much fun as the ones they’re imitating. Once you get past the grating first twenty minutes or so and get into the action, Taken is a solid, wickedly entertaining punch-up of the best Euro stock. And Liam Neeson proves himself a viable action star at 56. If they ever get around to making that Equalizer movie, I think he'd be a great choice for McCall.