January 27, 2009

Taken

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Taken

THRILLER:

France, 2008

U.S. Release Date:

2009-01-30

Running Length:

1:33

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2:35:1

Cast:

Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Olivier Rabourdin, Holly Valance, Xander Berkeley

Director:

Pierre Morel

Screenplay:

Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen

Cinematography:

Michel Abramowicz

Music:

Nathaniel Mechaly

U.S. Distributor:

20th Century Fox

Subtitles:

none


If there are any 24 fans who have wondered what the TV series might be like if Liam Neeson replaced Kiefer Sutherland, Taken provides an opportunity to have that question answered. Neeson's Bryan Mills uses nearly all the Jack Bauer tactics, including torture, bone-crunching, and bloodletting. He gets involved in car chases, shootouts, and brings a gun to a knife fight. Like the Energizer Bunny, he takes a licking but keeps on ticking. When it comes to action, Taken gets the job done. The film is never boring. It is, however, completely preposterous.

The screenplay, credited to Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, feels like the CliffsNotes version of something longer and more detailed. In order to shoehorn the introduction into a tidy 30-minute package, subtlety is abandoned. There are no transitions, but there's a lot of heavy-handed exposition. The filmmakers' approach is never to use a precision tool when a sledgehammer is available. Credulity isn't high on the list of characteristics they are striving for. The payoff is that once the movie gets going, the ride is enjoyable (if dumb). And one has to accept that, while the ending resolves the film's main storyline, there are countless dangling threads about which we are supposed to forget.

The film introduces us to ex-government operative Bryan Mills and wastes little time showing how competent he is in high-pressure situations when, while working as a hired security guard, he saves the life of a pop starlet (Holly Valance). Meanwhile, Bryan is trying to reconnect with his 17-year old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), but all she really wants from him is a signature on a permission slip so she can spend a few weeks in Paris. Because he "knows the world" to be a dangerous place, he's initially reluctant but, after a few nasty stares and cutting remarks from his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), he agrees. The next time he hears from Kim, she's in danger. A group of men have broken into her Paris residence and are stalking her. Armed with little in the way of concrete information, Bryan heads for Europe with the twin goal of finding his daughter and killing those who kidnapped her. The path leads into a maze that includes police corruption, Albanian organized crime, and sex slave trafficking.

On one level, it's refreshing to see people get killed when guns are fired. Hollywood's PG-13 vision is that lots of violence is okay as long at the results of the violence are neutered. It's a little surprising that this movie, with its frank and graphic depictions of torture and unflinching images of death, missed an R. It boggles the mind that the MPAA somehow deemed this appropriate for teenagers but found Slumdog Millionaire too harsh. I feel reasonably sure that five or ten years ago, this cut of Taken would have been rated R. The body count is high - probably at least 20. Jack Bauer would be proud.

This is a French film and most of it takes place in Paris, but as is the case for many projects with which Luc Besson is involved, it was made with an international market in mind. Besson likes to believe he can "out-Hollywood Hollywood." So, in this case, there's plenty of action, the stars are internationally known, and the dialogue is primarily in English. Despite these factors, 20th Century Fox hasn't thrown its full weight of approval behind Taken - the movie's release date was pushed back several times, and it reached U.S. theaters only after it was already available on DVD in Europe.

For Liam Neeson, this is one of those "paycheck" roles. He's not required to do much more than look grim and participate in some carefully choreographed action sequences. Maggie Grace, still best known for her doomed role in Lost, has the thankless task of playing the victim. There's no single villain, so a bunch of unknowns play various nefarious individuals who bear some degree of responsibility for what has happened to Kim. Unlike in many action films of this sort, however, there's no individual at the top of the totem pole, so Bryan's goal is to eliminate everyone with any degree of involvement. There's no Payback scenario.

Taken has the kind of story that, if fleshed out properly in a novel, might be a page-turner. The perfunctory, contrived manner in which director Pierre Morel handles the material, however, ensures that the movie is never given the opportunity to rise above the level of a cheap potboiler. Like most winter releases, this is one that can be easily bypassed. The well-crafted trailer promises more atmosphere and intelligence than the movie delivers.





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