Greetings all and welcome to DEEP/DIVE: FilmBunker’s newest (and greatest) editorial series! Join us for a somewhat regular column, where we will skewer, dissect and gleefully over-analyse a wide selection of fine films without any real need for doing so, because ‘The Internet’. Said films may be approaching, or have surpassed, a particular retrospective milestone. They may have penetrated the cultural zeitgeist in a way that demands increased attention from neurotic and/or caffeine-riddled critics. Or they might just have, like, really dank memes. Whatever the reason, FilmBunker is ready to wade through a sea of hot takes and pop-up browser tabs in order to take the plunge.
Released: 14 August 2008 (AUS)/30 January 2009 (US)
Directed by: Pierre Morel
Runtime: 90 minutes
A little more than a decade ago, if you were to turn to a good friend and tell them that the next bonafide action film star was to be none other than Liam Neeson—a gruff, ruggedly handsome, fifty-year-old actor from Northern Ireland—they likely would have scoffed in your smug face: “Really? The Dad from Love Actually? Old mate from that black and white Nazi film? Qui-Gon-fucking-Jinn?” And look, on paper, it does seem somewhat ludicrous. But in this age of late-stage neo-capitalism, dollars don’t lie.
After three films comprising a loose narrative trilogy, the Taken franchise has drawn in almost $1-billion in global box-office revenue. It even spawned its own remake, morphing into a syndicated U.S. television series that managed to exist for two whole seasons. The franchise effectively kicked off a second-act renaissance for Neeson’s career, allowing him to both menacingly threaten and creatively ham his way through all kinds of genre capers: throwing shade and/or lightning as Zeus in the abysmal Clash of the Titans (2010), chewing cigars as part of that totally unnecessary remake of The A-Team (2010), crying wolf in The Grey (2012), and racing against the clock in a slew of taut, kinetic action-thrillers like Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015) and last year’s surprisingly enjoyable The Commuter. And while there were certainly hints at this potential for dark intensity in Neeson’s earlier performances (for one, his portrayal of Ra’s al Ghul in Christopher Nolan’s outstanding The Dark Knight Trilogy), audiences weren’t entirely prepared for his committed delivery and over-the-top execution as former CIA operative turned ruthless-killing-machine-for-family, Bryan Mills.
Now, I would argue that watching Taken for the first time is a glorious, near-holy experience. Anyone who’s been exposed to even just a trace amount of Hollywood blockbusters already knows the language and visual cues of the action thriller. While the great films of this style subvert expectations through a nuanced selection of dialogue, setting, pacing and editing, the more lack-lustre versions will lean in to the tried (read: tired) and true clichés with absolutely nothing else to go on. And then there’s an oddity like Taken: a film seemingly born entirely of groan-worthy genre tropes, so utterly ridiculous in premise that it borders on the actively sadistic, delivered with such consummate skill and sheer force of will that you can’t help but get invested.
Trying to earnestly describe the plot of Taken (and I use that term loosely here) is a somewhat futile gesture; however, like most things in today’s ‘truth is definitely stranger than fiction’ world, Wikipedia does a pretty cracking job: “Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative who sets about tracking down his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and her best friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) after the two girls are kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers while travelling in France during a vacation.” And that’s it. You’ve got a straight-forward thriller set-up with a through-line of revenge, suspense and clear stakes. What follows though is suitably off the rails and, at times, unintentionally hilarious. For example, the first 30 minutes of the film is straight-up boring, filled to the brim with paper-thin characters, gruelling exposition and transparent motivations. However, with a screenplay helmed by Luc Besson (of Fifth Element and The Transporter fame) and Robert Mark Kamen, alongside competent direction from French filmmaker Pierre Morel, these initial scenes do an excellent job at setting up our core drama dynamic: infantilise the daughter, show the father-figure to be calculating and utterly devoted to his daughter, and then make the audience literally despise every other character.
Here’s a by no means exhaustive catalogue of some of the weird things that happen in the film’s first act:
- Mills checking out a karaoke machine instore, multiple times, as a gift for his 17-year old daughter.
- Said daughter is then played by the actress Maggie Grace, who, at the time of release, would have been 25 IRL.
- “Who’s Beyonce?”
- Mills gift wrapping with near-psychopathic precision.
- A Kodak moment in 2008.
- A brief instance of what I’m calling ‘equine-cucking’.
- That sad, sad ‘Happy Birthday Kim’ scrapbook.
- “Mr Attention-to-Detail”.
- Holly Valance as “cash cow” pop-diva Sheerah.
- “The sugar will take the edge off the shock” (actually a real technique; I looked it up).
- “I’m very good at being invisible”.
- Teenage girls listening to U2 in 2008.
Now, I would argue that all of these seemingly bizarre situations are entirely deliberate and in service of the film’s core theme. We’re supposed to think that Mills is lame and “pathetic”. He’s supposed to be the awkward, walking embodiment of a shitty dad joke. It’s this exact desired position for audience response that makes the beginning of the film’s second act and everything that follows so utterly compelling despite the obvious absurdities.
When Mills informs a terrified Kim that “they are going to take” her (get it?), the tone of the film drastically shifts. By the time Neeson is mouthing cold, menacing dialogue down the phone (yes, ‘that bit’; cue the “I have a very particular set of skills…” memes) to a random Albanian sex-trafficker who just abducted and, presumably, has already harmed his teenage daughter, the film kicks into overdrive and barrels into full-blown, batshit-insane territory with absolutely zero fucks to give. As the body count climbs in the second act, the weird moments continue to intensify:
- Crisp, audible Albanian dialogue through a shitty Nokia phone.
- Mills ‘downloading’ a file through his shitty burner phone while driving.
- Mills barging into his ex-wife’s house, not wanting to have a “dick measuring contest” with Kim’s step-dad, before demanding a plane to Paris and letting Sam spill gory sex-trade details over the phone to his clearly distraught ex-wife.
- The strangely convenient, 96-hour ticking clock.
- “Good luck”
- Those CSI-style re-enactment flashbacks.
- Mills grabbing a hair fibre off some broken glass for no apparent reason (and it’s never mentioned again).
- A little ‘zoom and enhance’ from that same shitty Nokia phone at a train station kiosk.
- A pancaked Peter followed by a slo-mo walk away from Mills.
- Jean-Claude saying the word ‘desk’ as much as humanly possible.
- Mills showing a flair for rally-car pyrotechnics.
Yet in spite of these eye-roll moments, no matter how many times I return to Taken and take obscene pleasure in keeping score of Neeson’s extravagant kill-count (be warned that when such score-keeping is weaponised into a drinking game, shit gets real very quickly), there’s always a sour after-taste of crucially unanswered questions. For example: is Mills actually the good guy? I mean sure, he saves Kim. He keeps his promise and gets her back. But at what cost? His stance on the plight of other women is shaky at best. One girl gets shot at the brothel, caught up in his crossfire shenanigans. He saves another girl and hooks her up to a drip for information, but then leaves another bunch of innocent girls at the sex-slave auction to go unassisted and most definitely get raped/murdered in the film’s third act. And what about Amanda? Kim’s best-friend is 100% dead. Does her family give a shit? Why weren’t they at the airport? Shouldn’t Kim be incredibly traumatised and racked with guilt at her ordeal? Nothing that Daddy’s smile and some Holly Valance singing lessons can’t fix I guess…
On the whole, Taken is largely predictable in how it builds tension, maintains tension and releases it in a satisfying way. There’s the typical Hollywood ending you expect, and a feel-good resolution that’s weirdly tone-deaf. (It also doesn’t really spell out a reason or need for Taken 2, or Taken 3, or that bloody TV show remake to exist within the context of the film’s larger story, except for, you know, dollars.) After the film’s U.S. release in 2009, renowned film critic Roger Ebert described Neeson’s Mills as “a one-man rescue squad, a master of every skill, a laser-eyed, sharpshooting, pursuit-driving, pocket-picking, impersonating, knife-fighting, torturing, karate-fighting killing machine.” However, Ebert also happened to enjoy the film for exactly what it is: a pop-corn action thriller that doesn’t have time for your god-damn, nit-picky bullshit. “It’s always a puzzle to review a movie like this,” Ebert notes. “On the one hand, it’s preposterous. But who expects a ‘Bourne’-type city-wrecking operative to be plausible? On the other hand, it’s very well-made.” Ultimately, that’s the bottom line here. Taken is very good at being kind of bad, and much like Neeson’s ruthless murder-Dad, the film has a very particular set of skills. It will look for you, it will find you and it will kill roughly ninety minutes of your time.
Join us next time for more DEEP/DIVE, where we have a crack at over-thinking Zack Snyder’s controversial adaptation of Alan Moore’s dystopian superhero property, Watchmen.