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Movie Review: Taken
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Cinema Junkie   |  
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Taken movie posterTaken
Directed by Pierre Morel
Starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Anjul Nigam, Jon Gries
PG-13
20th Century Fox
Release Date: January 30th, 2009

“Turn it off! Turn if off! TURN IT OFF!”
— Jake VanDorn from Hardcore

“Come on, Bennett, throw away that chicken-shit gun. You don’t just want to pull a trigger. Put the knife in me and look me in the eye and see what’s going on in there when you turn it.”
— John Matrix from Commando

“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
— Bryan Mills from Taken

Taken: An Efficient Dog Of War

We live in uncertain economic times. A night out at the movies has to be worth the price of admission. People want to escape from their lives for a few hours. They want to escape into the dark theaters for entertainment, for escapism. It does not surprise me that Paul Blart: Mall Cop was number one at the North American box office for two weekends in a row. I have not seen the film and I must say I have very little interest in seeing it, but I see the appeal very clearly. You can take the whole family to see it. Does it surprise anyone that Marley And Me and Bedtime Stories did as well as they did during the holiday season? It should not; these are films that whole families can go see and enjoy together.

During the Great Depression, everyone went to the movies; it was long before television — radio was the only competition. Musicals and comedies were the crowd pleasers of the day. Dark and serious films have a hard enough time during boom times which is a great tragedy, but during bad times, it is much harder to fill seats for serious fare. Now the competition is fierce — movies must compete with television, DVDs, the internet, video games, and a whole host of alternatives. In the best of times, one needed a real crowd pleaser to get people off their sofas and into theater seats. This past summer saw the release of one of those films, The Dark Knight. The film has made well over a billion dollars worldwide. People of all ages and all walks of life went to see the film. It was one of those watershed moments where a film truly speaks to the moment. Given its release date, the film was the calm before the storm. The Dark Knight was an epic crowd pleaser. Marley And Me turned out to be a harmless crowd pleaser. With horror films, it helps to add a gimmick to sell tickets. I can honestly say that the My Bloody Valentine remake would have been a complete waste of time without the 3-D effect thrown in. Otherwise, the horror genre just has The Unborn and The Uninvited — one would hope reading would come back in full swing if this is the best the genre has to offer. Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road never stood a chance in this economic climate. It is a lot to ask people to pay money to see a marriage crumble; the film would be a bleak experience in the best of circumstances. Is there an adult crowd pleaser out there, where we do not have to shut off our brains? Is there something out there to make a night at the movies worth our hard earned cash?

Pierre Morel’s Taken is the perfect crowd pleaser for adult audiences. The film is a very efficient thriller. It is not a great film, but it a very entertaining film brought to wonderful life by Liam Neeson. Pierre Morel is no stranger to action. His District B-13 was an incredibly engaging French action film which was set in the not so distant future. Liam Neeson and Pierre Morel are not the only thing that Taken has going for it. Luc Besson wrote the screenplay for the film; I am a huge admirer of Luc Besson. He does not direct as much as I would like. Leon/The Professional and La Femme Nikita are two films I never get bored of watching. I am also fond of Le Dernier Combat, Subway and The Big Blue. It was nice to see him return with a decent directorial job with Angel-A. Yet, it as a writer of action films where Mr. Besson has truly excelled over the last decade. Kiss Of The Dragon, Wasabi, The Transporter films, Danny The Dog, Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse, and District B-13 have additional style and grace thanks to Luc Besson’s contribution. It helps that he is a producer on these films because each of them has a Luc Besson feel to them. Besson was also an executive producer of last year’s Tell No One by Guillaume Canet. The film contains one of the most thrilling foot chase sequences in recent memory. The sequence could give all the Bourne films a run for its money.

Pierre Morel also takes a page from the Bourne films. Once it gets going, Taken‘s action shifts to Paris in total Jason Bourne mode. Action films have taken a page from the Bourne films ever since The Bourne Identity was released in 2002. Since Paul Greengrass took over directing duties with The Bourne Supremacy in 2004, Greengrass’ influence can be seen in many action films. The whole Bond reboot owes its success to the Bourne films. Casino Royale and especially Quantum Of Solace show the Bourne effect. It would be unfair to say this effect is all due to the success of the Bourne films. The Transporter came out in 2002; its influence can be seen in many films that have come out since then as well. Besson’s visual touch is on full display in Louis Leterrier’s Danny The Dog — one of Jet Li’s better films made outside of China. The Transporter films made Jason Statham a household name and a new kind of action star. His presence alone makes Crank worthwhile. Neither Jason Statham nor Jet Li could make War very watchable. Louis Leterrier also directed Transporter 2 and The Incredible Hulk. These are not perfect films, but both films possess the right degree of action to make them entertaining enough. Pierre Morel, like the other directors under Luc Besson, seems to have learned well. I do not expect anything less from the man who directed La Femme Nikita and Leon/The Professional. Pierre Morel was the cinematographer on The Transporter, Danny The Dog and War. It is a shame that he did not direct War because it might have been worthy of the film’s two leads. He paid attention while working as a cinematographer on The Transporter and Danny The Dog; this is evident in District B-13 and Taken. These films have always been more about visual style than actual substance with the exception of La Femme Nikita and Leon/The Professional, but what helps many of these action films is the lead actor’s performance. Give us a good action hero and we’ll give you our time.

Taken is every parent’s nightmare. Liam Neeson’s daughter is vacationing with a friend in Paris where the two girls are kidnapped. Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a retired spy who specializes in hand to hand combat. He is divorced from his wife, Lenore, an underused Famke Janssen, who has remarried. Lenore is married to Stuart (Xander Berkeley) and lives in his big Los Angeles home. Mills has retired and relocated to Los Angeles to rebuild his relationship with his daughter Kim, played by Maggie Grace.

The set up of this movie is very effective. Morel demonstrates Mills’ personality through a series of vignettes. Mills get together with some of his old friends from the CIA; they invite him to join them on a security detail for a very popular young singer. It should go off without a hitch, but there is backstage chaos at the concert. An assailant tries to stab the singer; Mills is quicker and saves the singer’s life. She is forever indebted to him. She offers to help his daughter with a career in music. His daughter, Kim wants to go to Paris with her friend. Lenore has given her permission, but they need to Bryan’s permission for her to go as well. Bryan is reluctant to say yes. He does, but only after Kim promises to call him with every detail of her whereabouts. Bryan’s work prevented him from being home with his wife and daughter. The first act of the film portrays a man desperately trying to correct the mistakes of the past. He wants another chance at being a better father. His over protectiveness of Kim is his way of doing this now. Shortly after Kim and her friend arrive to Paris, trouble rears its ugly head. As Kim is talking to Bryan on the phone, kidnappers break into the apartment. Kim sees what is going on and Bryan tells her to hide. They abduct her friend first and then they take her. Mills hears everything that is going on over the cell phone. He speaks into the phone and begins telling the kidnapper that he will hunt him down and kill him. After a long pause, the assailant tells him: “Good luck.” Bryan Mills is not going let them take his daughter away from him. Bryan Mills is going to Paris to find his daughter. Paris will never be the same again.

Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills joins a long list of fathers looking for their kidnapped or missing daughters. Certainly, Bryan Mills has a lot in common with George C. Scott’s Jake VanDorn in Hardcore, Terence Stamp’ Wilson in The Limey, and even Denzel Washington’s John Creasy in Man On Fire — Creasy is essentially Pita’s surrogate father in the film. While Neeson’s performance reminds me of these brilliant performances in some ways, especially Washington’s John Creasy in Man On Fire, Taken reminds me of another film. In its own way, Taken owes more to Mark L. Lester’s 1985 film, Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. In Commando, Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix, a retired Special Forces commando, who must rescue his daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano) who has been kidnapped by one of his former men. Commando was one of my favorite action films from the Eighties; it was the time in which Arnold Schwarzenegger was still making cool action films. Taken has many of the same elements that made Commando so successful. While Taken does not have the high body count of Commando, it does display another professional excelling at his craft. When Mills arrives in Paris, it does not take him long for the carnage to begin. Mills is the “ugly American”, but sometimes it takes the “ugly American” to get things done. He learns that his daughter has been kidnapped by Albanian gangsters who specialize in human trafficking. They get young girls hooked on drugs and sell them into the sex trade. Bryan Mills is the dog of war who is let loose on the streets of Paris to take care of business. He uses his connections in the intelligence community to track down the criminals, but in the end, he has to do it himself. While he does remind me of Schwarzenegger’s Matrix in this part of the film, he also reminds me of Christopher Walken’s Jamie Shannon in The Dogs Of War. While the action is definitely a product of the Bourne era, the character of Bryan Mills is an efficient blend of characters from the Nineties, the Eighties, and the Seventies. He is retro without having to be dated. There is something so fresh, but familiar in Mills. There is comfort in his actions. Bryan Mills is a throwback in many ways just as last year’s Rambo was a throwback to an earlier era of exploitation filmmaking. There is no doubt that I see some Charles Bronson vigilantism in Bryan Mills. In reality, vigilantism does not work out so well, but in the movies we have no problem with it.

Taken delivers the goods at the box office during harsh and uncertain times. It is a relief to see some decent escapist entertainment at a time where the box office is crowded with the lowest common denominators. Last year, Cloverfield was released in the theaters providing a very memorable and frightening communal experience. Cloverfield was a reminder of the power of that communal experience as was The Dark Knight later in the year. No one would ever accuse Taken of being anything more than popcorn entertainment; it does what it has to do and does it quite well. It is not the deepest film, but it acts as a nice companion piece to Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. Both films are character studies where the lead actors make each film worth watching. Liam Neeson seems to be able to do no wrong with each role he takes. He has played Michel Collins, Oskar Schindler, Robert Roy MacGregor, Qui-Gon Jinn, Jean Valjean, Alfred Kinsey, Aslan and Henri Ducard just to name a few. He can make anyone come to life — real or fictional. Yet as we seek to escape our problems in the darkness, let us not be afraid to take chances on some more serious fare. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler starring Mickey Rourke is one of the great character studies of recent times. It is a bleak, but beautiful film. Let us not let idiocy rule the temporary darkness every time. While I like Taken very much for its efficient charm, I think it is also perfectly fine to engage some serious and darker films too. Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s story should resonate with all of us right now. We have all been hit hard; many of us do feel our best days are behind us. The Wrestler could not have come at a more appropriate time. If we dumb down too much while we are in the dark, we might not be smart enough to find our way back to lighter and happier times.

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