Taken: Daddy Tortures Best

2009-01-30 (General release)

You can tell a lot about a man by watching how he shops for appliances. In the case of Bryan Mills — the ex-secret-operative-whatever whom Liam Neeson plays with dour glee in the speedy and semi-repulsive kidnap thriller that is Taken — audiences get a measure of the kind of man he is by watching him buy just the right karaoke machine for his daughter’s 17th birthday.

He’s a careful man, with a penchant for over-planning (the shop owner jokes about how many times Mills has been in his shop to look over the machine), but he doesn’t dilly-dally, isn’t afraid to make decisions. When Mills decides that yes, this machine is indeed the one that will help win back the daughter whose heart has been poisoned against him by his vengeful ex-wife and her stuck-up new husband, he doesn’t think twice. He buys the damn thing. So viewers will feel secure knowing that when said daughter gets kidnapped in Paris by Albanian human traffickers, Mills is the guy to go after them and start snapping fingers like so many dry twigs.

The impresario behind the new year’s most popular piece of family-unit-unification mayhem, producer and co-writer Luc Besson, has been specializing in producing export-friendly mid-budget cinematic brutality like this for some time. His Transporter triptych is a model for the future of high-yield action franchises, while side-projects like Unleashed and Wasabi have provided enjoyably quirky pulp vehicles for everyone from Morgan Freeman to Jet Li.

Besson’s heavy-handed but effective stamp is seen throughout Taken, which is directed by one of his cinematographers, Pierre Morel. (It should be added that Morel was also the patient Steadicam hand behind Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, but that exercise seems to have cured him of any interest in layered dialogue or characters written with more than a centimeter’s depth.) What is missing here is nearly any of Besson’s characteristic flickers of off-key humor or character-defining oddities. What it’s been replaced with is a grim, post-24 sense of nihilistic righteousness. That and a queasy Freudian subtext that’s so blatant it barely deserves the name.

The backstory we’re given for Mills is that he used to be a government operative, the kind of guy who could hotwire a Land Rover in Damascus, take out a Hezbollah cell in Beirut, and still have time for mint tea and kebabs before bedtime. He’s now chucked his Bourne ways to hang around Los Angeles to reestablish some relationship with his teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace). Ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and Kim’s stepdad Stuart (Xander Berkeley, unctuous as always) do a nice tag-team job of even further defanging the retired Mills, who’s reduced to working the occasional concert security gig with his ex-spy buddies in order to keep his wits about him. When Mills shows up to Kim’s birthday party at Stuart’s Monaco palace-sized estate with his sad karaoke machine present, his emasculation seems nearly complete.

Of course, that’s before Kim sets off to follow U2 around Europe with her slutty blond friend, a trip that the professionally paranoid but then-powerless Mills was dead-set against. The critical emotional scene in Taken takes place at the moment when Kim calls Mills from Paris right as she and her friend are being kidnapped. Mills can only listen helplessly as Kim hears her abductors coming closer, the man of action on the other end of the line neutralized. It’s a knife twist in the gut, watching Neeson’s face cycle between professional calm (the need to listen carefully and pick up clues) and parental panic. Then Kim is gone, and after that the film becomes little more than a primordial race for a father to fight to the death all those who would take her away from him.

It’s disturbing enough that a disproportionate part of Taken‘s early scenes focus so intently both on Mills’ full-bore and controlling love of Kim and also on her overstated childishness. (Maggie Grace, as Kim, is 26, playing 17, but acting like a 12-year-old on a sugar-high, all squeals, hops in the air, and “Thank you, Daddy!”) Add to that the bluntly inserted exchange right before the abduction that tell us Kim is a virgin — unlike her experienced friend, whose flirtatious nature is shown as the primary reason for their being targeted — and a host of dark-hued human traffickers, and you have a retrograde white slavery thriller where loss of sexual innocence is equated not too subtly with the foreign Other.

Being the high-testosterone uber-agent that he is, Mills is able to quickly blast and torture his way through concentric rings of heavily-accented, swarthy villains in his quest to preserve Kim’s life — and purity. It would be nice to say that it doesn’t all end up in a decadently appointed bedroom with a lecherous, corpulent Arab sheik, but that’s just the kind of trash that this is.

It would also be nice to say that at any time Mills shows even the slightest introspection about the dubious actions he’s taken in the course of his quest, whether it’s all the female sex-slaves he abandons in his wake since they’re not his daughter, or the completely innocent woman he shoots in order to make her husband cough up some information. “It’s a flesh wound!” Mills barks at the cowering husband, and if it wasn’t Neeson barking those words, you would hate him even more for it. Neeson seems to be trying to keep a form of stained dignity here, even as he drives his lurching frame through one indifferently choreographed fight scene after another.

But Mill’s towering righteousness is just too much for this weak little film, whose only interest is in affirming the white patriarchal prerogative. A great deal of the reason one can even stand to watch Taken is the stalwart presence of Neeson, who picks up the dusty mantle of violently aggrieved dad where Harrison Ford dropped it some years ago, and makes it work much more organically. But at the same time, Neeson’s powerfully committed presence only highlights the artificiality of the material’s more unseemly elements, and one’s embarrassment for taking part in it.