A film review by Craig J. Koban

TAKEN jjj
 

2009, PG-13, 91 mins.

Bryan Mills: Liam Neeson / Kim: Maggie Grace / Lenore:  Famke Janssen / Amanda: Katie Cassidy / Marko: Arben Bajraktaraj / St. Clair: Gerard Watkins

Directed by Pierre Morel / Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen.

TAKEN is a borderline preposterous marriage of TV’s 24 and DEATH WISH.  In no way shape or form does this film reinvent the wheel when it comes to revenge thrillers: it follows most of the basic rules of this genre’s playbook and very rarely, if ever, subsides.  

Yet, as I left the theater I was overwhelmed with conflicting feelings, such as the fact that I knew, in my heart of hearts, that TAKEN was an auctioneer seriously heavy in incredulous, logic-defying plot points and uses a morally reprehensible theme of the sex slave trade in Europe simply as a manipulative excuse for the film’s gut churning action and spectacle.  On the other hand, there is simply no denying that this film works: As a non-nonsense, frenetically violent, and intense rescue thriller, TAKEN is professionally slick, well tuned, fast pasted, involving, and mindlessly enjoyable as a pure, unapologetic exploitation flick, the kind where we want to see the hero – in this film's case – flip his lid, fly to France, and utterly decimate his way through dozens of vile and reprehensible Albanians to rescue his teenage daughter.  

The provocateur of the film’s relentless barrage of determined and wanton bloodshed is, of all people, Liam Neeson, and it is his very off-center casting as the lead in TAKEN that is its most effective and satisfying payoff.  At face value, if you consider the Irish actor’s reputable body of work, it’s somewhat difficult to see how he would be considered the prime candidate for the role of a tough, relentless, battle hardened, and virtually indestructible former American spy that has “a particular set of skills” that makes him a nightmare to people that he places in his crosshairs.  Thinking upon this while I was watching Neeson engage in an orgy of cold-blooded and unfeeling violence, I was reminded of how effective he was playing Alfred Kinsey, Jean Valjean, Michael Collins, Qui-Gon Jinn, and, yes, Oskar Schindler.  I have always respected Neeson’s innate ability to infuse these characters with an impassioned and quietly powerful on screen presence where his words and tone were the best weapons.  Of course, he brings these trademark traits to the table in TAKEN, but he also demonstrates what a merciless one-man kick-ass squad he is when pushed to the brink.   

Perhaps that’s why I responded so favorably to this largely disposable action flick.  Neeson is able to use his hard-edged, pitilessly determined, focused, and palpable sense of internalized anger and hostility to such a believable level throughout the film.  Yes, the series of events that he finds his ex-spy involved in are certainly head-scratching in their implausibility, not to mention that his ingenious methods and virtual invulnerability displayed are somewhat giggle inducing, but Neeson brings such a solemn, gravel voiced, and impenetrably tough and efficient low key magnetism to the part that you find yourself buying in to all of the film’s ludicrousness.   Plus, seeing the man that is set to play Abraham Lincoln for Steven Spielberg shooting, stabbing, and terrorizing his way through a slew of faceless woman abusers in picturesque Paris is a somewhat indefensible, but guilty-pleasured, hoot.  

Beyond that, the film is an incredibly expeditious 90-plus minutes: it does not waste too much time on exposition and hurtles us forward into the main arc of the story very promptly.  We are introduced to Bryan Mills (Neeson), who is subtly revealed as an ex-government operative that is an unmatched mastermind when it comes to espionage, pursuit, deductive investigation, physical combat of all forms, fire arms and small weapons, and...torture.  He his retired from the CIA’s famed Special Activities Division, where the exact extent of his work has remained a mystery to most of his loved ones in his own family.  He’s semi-retired now, taking the odd security detail job when offered by one of his close government buddies (he’s unscrupulously good at this somewhat menial job, as displayed in one scene where he rescues his employer, a pop diva, from a knife wielding attacker).  

Alas, Mills is a sad and lonely figure, long divorced from his ex-wife (played by Famke Janssen, in the thankless cold-hearted and unsympathetic ex-wife role) who now lives with her remarkably wealthy new husband (Xander Berkeley).  Also living with the rich couple is Mills’ 17-year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), who still loves her dear ol’ dad, even though she finds all of his emotional smothering annoying, not to mention that her new stepdad lavishly buys her affections with expensive gifts.  Bryan desperately tries to reconnect with his semi-estranged daughter, but his love for his daughter is given a roadblock when she pleads with him to sign a parental waiver that would allow her and a friend to travel to Paris alone.  Seeing as Bryan is a man with…er…experience in world affairs, he initially balks at the idea of his not-yet-legal daughter going to Paris (he knows its hidden dangers), but he begrudgingly agrees. 

Big mistake.  

As Kim and her friend land and make there way to the extravagant Paris apartment where they’ll be staying, both of them are swiftly abducted as a result of a hasty meeting with a handsome young man on the streets that Kim’s friend was far too personally disclosing with.  Kim hides under the bed as she sees her friend squirm and scream as the kidnappers have their way with her, but she does manage to quickly call her father.  Bryan knows that she will inevitably be found and abducted, so he uses her last few minutes on the phone to get some vital and very subtle clues as to the perpetrators' identities.  Once she has been caught, Neeson goes into full-on Charles Bronson vendetta mode, with the entire high tech arsenal that the CIA has to offer him…plus his wits and brawn…for sure. 

Again, TAKEN is pretty hard to take too seriously throughout its sparse 91 minutes.  For starters, Neeson’s super cagey, all-powerful and all-knowing spy certainly is benefited by a script that is plagued by commonsensical loopholes and dubious plot developments and conveniences.  The way that Bryan is able to get to Paris swiftly and garner very important and vital information about the perpetrators – whom he has never seen – based on snippets of his cell phone conversation with his daughter (and with the aid of some CIA contacts at Langley) is simultaneously both ingenious and silly.  I mean, wow, he is able to deduce that the girl’s kidnapper is Albanian with limited clues and that he runs a Paris-wide ring that kidnaps young female tourists – preferably virginal – so that he can drug them, brainwash them, and allow them to become zombified whores that are auctioned off to horny Arab Sheiks.  Ummm…okay.  Equally thorny is the notion that CIA headquarters tells Bryan that he only has a window of 96 hours to get is daughter back before she’s gone forever…which still does not make much sense to me.   To put the icing on the cake, Bryan leaves slimy perps in body bags – in broad daylight – all over Paris, but still manages to escape and allude capture at every waking call.  Yup.  Sure.  Right. 

Okay, this film is absurd…but I relished in its trashy absurdity.  On one level, the film is exploitation flick that fires on its intended cylinders without fail, providing that you allow your brain to remain in the theater lobby.  Furthermore, the action and stunt set pieces (even when annoyingly filmed from time to time with that shaky, headache inducing, and frantic editing of shots every millisecond) are consummately handled and exciting.  Filled with slam bam chases, martial arts fisticuffs, and moments of teeth grating torture, TAKEN is unpretentiously fulfilling.  And, despite the fact that the film does not establish a clear-cut villain, we still respond with a bloodthirsty yearning for the hero to make mince meat out of the nefarious Albanians that have abused his cute daughter.  I guess that having only one unifying bad guy would have narrowed Bryan’s focus.  Without one, he is forced to kill…well…everyone. 

All of this, of course, is made all the more endurable and involving because of Neeson’s remarkably convincing turn as the retired-divorced father turned judge, jury, and fearless execution.  It’s so deceptively easy to see another more muscled-bound and intimidating presence in the lead role (like, say, Jason Statham), but Neeson’s gangly façade, introverted hostility, his stoic and modulated line delivery, and his piercing and nonchalant stare make his action hero that much more tolerable and realistic.  Just watch how he uses his under-cranked intensity and brooding charisma to just the right effect during the film’s most ghastly torture scene.  Another beefy action star would have played the part with over-the-top histrionics, but the way Neeson’s quietly modulates through it makes it all the more chilling, like when he tells his gagged victim – with electrodes attached – “You either give me what I need or this switch will stay on until they turn the power off for lack of payment on the bill.”   

TAKEN was directed by Pierre Morel, who made the wonderfully high spirited and fun French martial arts film, DISTRICT B:13, which I called in my review a perfect example of fast food cinema: cheap, easily digested, flavorful, but soon forgotten.  TAKEN is yet another "Big Mac film" written by the duo of Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, both of whom have created the ridiculously enjoyable TRANSPORTER trilogy and have once again successfully fused inane and stylish action with a ferociously resolute and single-minded hero in a plot that is just a closeline for the audience friendly spectacle.  TAKEN is just as trashy, but buoyantly exhilarating and enjoyable, of a thrill ride as any of the TRANSPORTER entries, but it perhaps is made all the more memorable and involving because Liam Neeson brings an below-the-radar integrity and off-kilter physical charisma to his very vengeful action hero.  TAKEN is cartoonish, dumber than a bag of hammers, predictable, and repugnant at times…but in good ways.  It’s a straightforward tale of one’s man’s carnage-filled retribution, and Neeson so thoroughly channels his character’s extraordinary lethality to realistic effect despite the unrealistic story he populates.

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