Pierre Morel, of District 13 fame, has just released his second directorial effort. Like District 13, Taken is a meditation on the immigrant question wrapped in a gut-thumping actioner. Like District 13, Taken throws a lot of sweet sweet thrills at us that can’t distract us from the subtext, for better or worse. And blimey, is that subtext — and dialogue — ham-fisted and poorly written (sorry, co-writer Luc Besson). Taken contains one of the most painful set-ups I’ve ever sat through — it’s Plot for Dummies delivered through Syrup of Exposition that’s spoonfed to us like a pack of waiting ninnies. The whole thing is mindlessly propagandic (not an oxymoron after all), and the editing in the fight and chase scenes is Bourne Ultimatum beserker-esque, and decent actors come off looking like amateurs, but all in all it’s not the worst action movie I’ve seen. It’s cobbled out of clichés, and it’s ridiculous (but not over-the-top ridiculous enough to excuse it), and it will probably wind up on the wrong side of politics, à la Dirty Harry, but it can’t be totally dismissed, either, because its tension and its star, Liam Neeson, grease its clunking mechanisms enough to get it operational.
The trailer and movie poster make a plot summary redundant, but it’s part of the job description, so here goes: Neeson plays an ex-operative named Bryan Mills who retired from service in order to spend more time with his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), if not the wife (Famke Janssen) who already left him for a less neglectful mate. Barring contact with a few of his service buddies, Mills is rudderless, lonely, and nurturing an unhealthy daughter fixation that shows itself in his creepy scrap-booking of snapshots of events that weren’t particularly positive. Mills just wants to spend time with his spoiled, clueless kid, who in turn just wants to be spoiled and clueless. He reluctantly gives Kim permission to travel to Paris with a friend, hating to lengthen the tether he’s attached to his kin — a tether that seems to be made of 50% natural affection and 50% unsettling possessiveness. But possession is thematic in Taken; it comes to a head when Kim and her girlfriend are abducted by sex traffickers soon after arriving in France, and Mills is forced to use “a very particular set of skills” to retrieve his own from the takers.
The movie has its moments. Decent sequences include Mills beating and chasing an oily spotter named Peter, who skulks around Charles de Gaulle airport looking for young women travelling alone; Mills nurturing one of the traffickers’ victims in a hotel room in order to press info about his daughter from the girl; and Mills’ awkward interaction with a corrupt Parisian cop who may or may not be in on the crime. I said they were “decent,” though, not outstanding, and not particularly convincing (except for the way Mills wails on Peter and creates a joyous public chaos). And if impressionistic beserker editing is your poison (no action shot lasts longer than a second — many for half that), you’ll probably enjoy the thrill scenes. Some degree of care was put into those, and Neeson is awesome when he’s in Statham mode. In fact, he’s the best thing about the movie (cotton-mouthed American accent aside). It’s always nice to see a substantial actor heavy-lift like a bad-ass. When Neeson isn’t cracking skulls, he’s providing us with believable passion. There’s a moment early in the film when Mills tells his buddies that his daughter has just invited him for lunch; Neeson cracks a smile as he delivers the good news that hits the heart of desperate-daddy love.
It’s a blindingly good bit of acting that only makes the contrast between Neeson’s performance and Janssen’s (for instance) more visible. For every decent moment in Taken, there are two or three that bring the enterprise down. We’ve seen the evidence of Janssen’s abilities elsewhere, but Morel and Besson put Desperate Housewives mannerisms on her form and terrible dialogue in her mouth; action movies don’t tend to overwrite the parts of bit players, but when we notice just how poorly written they are, knuckles ought to be slapped. Maggie Grace, as Kim, is all limbs and bubble-headed flair; there’s nothing in her role or performance to latch onto, which just amplifies how much the movie is about the owners and how little about the ostensibly owned. Wives and daughters and even female pop-stars are positioned like chattel (purposefully — though for what purpose is debatable); the pop-star is a “cash cow” for her managers and the daughters are sold off to the highest bidders. Taken gives us a man’s world where women have zero agency; they live in bubbles and leave homes and homelands at their own peril. Without daddy’s or husband’s arm, they wind up tied to the bed of a rapist sheik. Women-as-property may be a notion borrowed directly from actual culture, but skins will prickle to see it so idealized (never let it be said that action movies aren’t, at bottom, pure romance).
The movie, apparently, is designed to push gender buttons, but it launches off immigration politics, too, and — if you were inclined to — can be read a certain uncomfortable way. It will make some viewers angry; others will pull the “it’s just a popcorn movie” card and shut discussion down. Make of the film what you will — it’s your viewing experience, after all. But it’s all there, mallet-subtle, and Taken doesn’t complicate itself in the end the way (so I’m told — I have yet to see it) Gran Torino does. Morel and Besson have given us a picture that can inspire a lot of “are they or aren’t they?” questions in anyone with a grasp of current French politics, and it can generate a solid thirty minutes of hectic post-viewing conversation for the predisposed. Unlike District 13, Taken is entirely pro-West — no French filmmaker can put what Morel and Besson put onscreen “accidentally” or naively and not know what compatriots will make of it. Not in 2009. It all makes for a picture much more interesting than the sum of its parts — even a picture that seems to have been written for trailer soundbites alone, and built on shocks that aren’t, ultimately, as shocking as designed. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on February 1, 2009.)