A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, PG-13, 91 mins.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.