Pierre Morel's Taken (2008) is an anachronism, a thriller George W. Bush might have enjoyed or--more to the point--something Dick Cheney might have chortled over, reminiscing of better times, if they had remained in power. One can imagine it screening in the White House's private theater, only not for its intended audience: the two little girls sent to bed, the wife close by his side, both set of presidential knuckles tightening over their armrests--not so much in awe of the derring-do depicted onscreen (the action sequences are incoherent and therefore dull) as in wonder at the idiots who can dream up this garbage.
The plot is silly enough--former spy Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) scoops up his collection of forged passports and wads of foreign currency again when his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, who likes to run around in an irritatingly dorky manner) is kidnapped by white slavers intending to sell her into prostitution (or at least high-end mistressing)--but it's the unquestioned assumptions underpinning the plot that truly offend. I mean--is France really a seething cesspool of sex traffickers, wealthy hedonists (mostly Arab) and corrupt bureaucrats? Are ex-CIA operatives really so noble as to give up their career for the daughter they love? Is time so short and matters really so desperate that torture is the only alternative (and anyway, are the answers produced reliable?)? Are the filmmakers (Morel and his writer-producer Luc Besson) really so intent at earning the all-important American dollar they are willing to slander their own country? Are teenaged American girls really so stupid as to be abducted hours after landing in a foreign country (in which case is one really out of line in feeling she deserved what she got?)?
Mills' CIA-honed mind isn't all tactical brilliance; he stages a one-man raid on a construction site office for no apparent reason (other than to pad the running time past the 90 minute mark) and escapes only through sheer dumb luck. In probably the most controversial scene in the picture he shoots a government official's bystander housewife to obtain much-needed information--maybe it's me, but isn't it possible a man, even a Frenchman, would go ballistic when you shoot his spouse? Wouldn't offering a bottle of Chateau Latour of good vintage be more effective? Way to go for international diplomacy and the righteousness of the American Way, by the way--after all it isn't just Mills' daughter at stake, but her purity as well (Boo! Hiss! European and Middle Eastern degenerates!). The value of a Western Caucasian's hymen has always been high, at least in Hollywood movies.
Mills' torture of the gang boss is cleverly staged--electricity looks clean, just a buzzing noise, flashing lightbulbs, and an actor pretending convulsions; audiences wouldn't be half as comfortable if Mills had uprooted a few fingernails or pulled a tooth or punctured an eyeball. But shoot, he's no barbarian--it's either this or waterboarding, the technique first used by Americans on Filipinos in the Philippine-American War (when it was known as the 'water cure') about a hundred years ago, more recently one of five reportedly approved methods used by the previous administration on Iraqi prisoners during 'enhanced interrogation' sessions.
One watches with a kind of appalled fascination; if Morel were a talent in the same league as, say, Don Seigel (Dirty Harry, 1971), one might announce the American debut of a new fascist film master, able to serve up conservative drivel with an artist's flair; regretfully (I mean this, too) not the case. Morel's setpieces are of the Paul Greengrass school of action moviemaking, with camerawork done as if by an alcoholic and footage cut as if by a John Deere power mower. One can sense that Mills is supposed to be a formidable fighter and crack racing driver, but one can't be quite sure--the action is so chaotically presented it's hard to tell which fist is pummeling whose face where, and why.
All this ludicrousness would be easier to dismiss if it weren't for Neeson. Tall and stooped, with a distinct melancholic air about him (he's both hunchback and belltower in one forlorn figure), Neeson invests Mills with all the humanity the filmmakers apparently lack. He even pulls off the shamelessly sentimental early scenes, of Mills watching from the sidelines as his precious daughter receives a birthday pony from her rich stepfather and Mill's ex-wife (Morel sketches the man's situation with such economical and understated skill one is tempted to call out to him: "forget action, do drama--you've got a real flair"). One can accuse the movie of Neanderthal politics, blatant racism and gratuitous violence, but one can't accuse it of bad acting, at least not the lead actor (and only the actor; the dialogue ("I'll tear down the Eiffel Tower if I have to!") is an entirely different matter). Give me Neeson as the fearlessly questioning Kinsey in Bill Condon's 2004 film of the same name (can an actor be so clueless about the script he's reading?); give me also Neeson in Sam Raimi's Darkman (1990)--every bit as sadistic, but Neeson's character Dr. Peyton Westlake at least openly admits to the monstrousness in him, and Raimi's film has more of a sense of irony about it.
As for Besson--hard to think of any other names left to call him. From modestly talented director (Le Dernier combat (The Last Combat, 1983)) to international hitmaker (Nikita, 1990; Leon, 1994) to Hollywood camp stylist (The Fifth Element (1997), maybe my favorite of all his works) to pretentious hack (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, 1999) to just plain hack writer (this movie) with distinct reactionary leanings, he's run almost the full course of his downward trajectory.
This could all be a gag, of course, some elaborate effort on the part of Morel and Besson to signify that they're just pulling the legs of the present United States administration instead of sucking up to the previous one (What, were they actually counting on John McCain to win?). I don't know, I don't know--in the movie's distinctly unironic ending (please don't read any further if you for goodness knows what reason still want to watch this atrocity) Morel and Besson has Mills nobly presenting his daughter to her mother and stepfather (yes, she still runs like a dork), safe and sound, not a hair mussed, hymen still intact.
First published at Businessworld, 3.13.09