Directed By Pierre Morel
Starring Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen and Maggie Grace
When Bryan’s 17 year-old daughter is kidnapped on her way to follow U2 on their European tour*, he quickly decides that dialling 911 is the coward’s way of handling things, best left to old women and cripplingly lazy people, and instead sets off on a vengeful quest to get his offspring back himself. Unluckily for the kidnappers, Bryan is an ex-spy with all manner of bone-snapping skills. He’s also Liam Neeson, and therefore tall enough to swat planes out of the sky when standing on his tippy-toes, hampering many a bad guy’s escape. Bryan gets to France and wisely decides to skip the croissants and Louvre tours and skip right to that often overlooked method of diplomatic relations: crushing the throats and snapping the limbs of everyone in the country until he finds his child.
Yep, it sounds like every action movie you’ve ever seen meets every other action movie you’ve ever seen. This is a film whose structure is mired in cliché; it’s a fusion of revenge film, kidnap drama and ‘absentee dad makes up for his neglect when thrown into extraordinary circumstances’ movie (Why hello there, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Liar, Liar, etc., etc…) – by definition, it’d have to work insanely hard to break new ground. You could play the “Where have I seen this before?” game until the cows came home, at which point you’d have forgotten about the movie and be more worried about bovine trespassers on your property. Of course, this is also a film from the creative team behind The Transporter – anyone expecting high art or the masterful writing of David Mamet’s superb spy vs. kidnappers film Spartan is trying to find caviar in the fast food aisle. However, between Luc Besson’s producing/writing duties on The Transporter trilogy, Danny The Dog and the Taxi series, and director Pierre Morel’s blisteringly kinetic District 13, one thing that this crew have perfected is the art of staging energetic, well-shot and above-average action movies, and this film doesn’t break that streak. Though its foundations are rooted in generic been-there-before territory, Taken quickly ditches any ambitions of re-inventing the genre and just tries to deliver an exhilarating, streamlined piece of entertainment crammed to bursting with action. From early on, we learn that the film has no intention of wading into deeper waters – the twists are telegraphed so blatantly that all but the comatose will spot them, the villains are about as well-drawn as a fingerless leper’s self-portraits, and any notions of exploring the morality of vigilante justice are tossed aside like half-eaten pain au chocolat (there’s a moment late in the film where Bryan crosses some rather large moral boundaries even for him, but the film breezes by it with barely a word). Morel simply doesn’t have time for it, and spends more time gliding from one face-crushing set-piece to another, and the result is a light, yet highly taut and incredibly effective action film.
Taken, though just as liberally smeared with action, is far more anchored in realism than its creative team’s prior work. Far from being a Jackie Chan-esque superhero like The Transporter’s Frank Martin, Neeson’s Bryan is closer to Jason Bourne in his physicality; he’s not about to tell the laws of physics to go fuck themselves, and then defy gravity, and at no point do we expect he’ll karate chop a hole in the space-time continuum, travel into the past and punch apart his enemies’ forefathers to stop the whole messy future predicament from ever happening. Taken’s action is grounded in military self defence techniques, and manages to be predominantly fast, brutal and completely believable, and Liam Neeson is up to the challenge every step of the way. Throwing him in as the lead in an action movie is strange, but utterly inspired casting and he’s the film’s ace-in-the-hole. The film hinges on him; he’s the only relatively fleshed-out character in 90 minutes of faceless foreign evildoers, and he’s utterly perfect as the down-beaten everyman father, and just as awesome as the ex-covert ops obliterator of bad guys’ skeletal structures. He’s undoubtedly capable of the dramatic elements of the film on autopilot, but it’s entirely surprising how effortlessly he handles the physical elements too. His accent fades in and out like Dave McFly does from family photos, but much like Jason Statham’s muddled accent in The Transporter, it’s quickly dismissible as a case of military world-travelling accent osmosis. He’s a joy to watch, and elevates the film leaps and bounds above its generic genre trappings.
Famke Janssen shows up briefly as the ice-queen ex-wife, and handles the role with ease, though she’s given relatively little to do. Xander Berkeley pops up for all of 12 seconds as Bryan’s daughter’s new stepdad. He’s woefully underused, but if anyone can play the smarmy ass-hat without batting an eyelid, it’s him. Or William Atherton. And Maggie Grace does the 25-year-old-playing-17 routine as Bryan’s snatched daughter. She plays the flighty teenager as equal parts energetic puppy and the airheaded girl you wouldn’t mourn if she got chewed up by a giant mutant racoon in a Z-grade horror movie. She’s likeable enough, but it’s hard not to groan at some of the choices she makes with her shallow friend Katie Cassidy (Note to teenage girls: When staying in a foreign country, don’t catch a ride with the first sleazy French guy you stumble upon. Pepper spray first, ask questions later.). She’s essentially the catalyst for Neeson to destroy France, and he handles the emotional range well enough that it picks up the slack on her end and we care infinitely more. The characterization is relatively light on the ground – this is essentially The Liam Neeson Kills Everything Show, and it’s hard to complain that he’s given 99% of the screen time when he’s so eminently watchable in the role.
It’s not especially deep, and it’s not as intelligent as, say, the Jason Bourne films, but it is a relentlessly action-filled movie that doesn’t let up the pace for its entire run-time. The movie breezes by faster than you can shout “Holly Valance!” in a bad Australian accent, and is incredibly entertaining throughout. If you’re after a quick and brutal action film bolstered by a deftly-delivered lead performance, then Taken will suit you perfectly and quickly crush any dreams you had of visiting France.
*The underlying moral subtext of the film: Paying money to see U2 will result in emotional and physical torture for both you and your immediate family.
(Review originally published at WRAWReviews.co.uk)