Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 01 February 2010
Source Fox DVD
As blunt as its title, Taken is a no-nonsense action-thriller from the team of director Pierre Morel and producer Luc Besson (who co-wrote the film with Robert Mark Kamen). Morel and Besson previously collaborated on the distopic District B13, a remarkable movie based around the aesthetic of parkour in which the actors are able to overcome any physical obstacle in their way, be it bench or building. Morel moves through that plot as cleanly and succinctly as the actors who scale structures with their bare hands: both space and story are expertly manipulated in order to be as efficient as possible. While Taken forgoes the sophisticated gymnastics of parkour, its fights and chases (albeit more straightforward) do retain a similar fluidity, as well as a distinct grounding in physical reality. Taken also preserves the no-frills narrative style of District B13. At moments where many other films would complicate with needless elaboration, Taken plugs away with an unshakable directness, a sense of purpose as resolute as that of its main character.
Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a former international spy (what he calls a “preventer”) who has retired from his position in order to try and patch up his relationship with his estranged daughter, Kim. Looking to win her affection, he reluctantly agrees to let her spend the summer in Paris with a friend. Only on her first day abroad, his worst nightmare comes true. While on the phone with her, Mills overhears Kim and her friend being abducted. Using his former contacts, Mills ascertains that his daughter’s captors are planning on selling her into the international sex trade, and most victims have only a window of 96 hours to be rescued before they vanish. 96 hours in which Mills must come out of retirement, fly to Paris, and pick up the trail before he loses his daughter forever.
The action in Taken is exceptionally raw. Other than a cell-phone and a walkie talkie, Mills doesn’t have any gadgets or technology. He gets the information he needs to know by walking in a building and getting it first hand: beating it out of people with bare fists and bullets. It is a brutal, almost barroom-style of fighting, which runs counter to the predominance of martial arts-inspired combat that has been the fad in movies for well over a decade. The action may be gritty, but that doesn’t mean it lacks elegance or precision. Instead, the choreography is very clean, which Morel’s camera captures in all its glory and doesn’t obscure through overly fast cutting. Like dominoes, all it takes is seconds for a handcuffed Mills hanging from a pipe to subdue his captors. Ripping the pipe from the ceiling knocks down one opponent; a backwards head-butt does another; busting open the pipe’s sprinkler with his handcuffs distracts one more; snapping someone’s neck against a rail takes out number four, leaving Mills opportunity to take the last man’s gun and shoot him with it. Even the car chases follow this aesthetic: unlike Besson’s Transporter series, there are no fancy automotive stunts, just the fast, reckless driving of a pissed off guy whose determination knows no boundaries.
Bryan Mills is a 21st century vigilante. An update of Mickey Spillane’s hardboiled, Cold War-era icon Mike Hammer, Mills pursues personal justice with zero regard for law and order. Human life – as long as it stands in the way of his mission – is meaningless. His is a battle on two fronts: against both the abductors who break the law, as well as the police themselves, who fail to uphold the law and stand in his way. When he needs information from the French police (who are constantly trying to capture and deport him), Mills waltzes into the inspector’s house, invites himself to dinner, and then calmly shoots the inspector’s wife. “It’s a flesh wound,” he says, “but if you don’t get me what I need, the last thing you’ll see before I make your children orphans is the bullet I put between her eyes.” She is one of the few people in the movie that he leaves alive. Soon after, Mills would unload a full clip of bullets into another father on the floor of an elevator who is implicated in the sex trade industry.
Unrelentingly violent, Mills is even more merciless than Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s revisionist Kiss Me Deadly. In an attempt to subvert Spillane’s original character, Aldrich upped Hammer’s sadism and dumbed down his intelligence: it was Aldrich’s way of reclaiming a cultural icon for his own political agenda, which didn’t valorize Hammer so much as turn him into the scum of the earth whose arrogance brings about a nuclear holocaust. (Not too flattering.) In a similar manner, Morel and writers Besson and Kamen push Mills to such an extreme that it complicates and subverts our sympathy with him. But with no other morally grounded characters to cling to, Mills is the closest thing to a hero in the film, even though his actions are highly reprehensible.
While the xenophobic anxiety of Americans abroad isn’t a new subject (even Alfred Hitchcock approached the topic in his 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much), it’s difficult to watch certain scenes in Taken without thinking of contemporary parallels. Specifically, the scene in which Mills interrogates one of the abductors in a basement brings to mind Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. After beating and tying him up, Mills jams two large nails into his prisoner’s legs and connects them to a generator. Even after he gets the information he wants and the prisoner cries out that he knows no more, Mills still replies, “I believe you, but it’s not going to save you.” Pushing the lever to high, we hear the prisoner’s death moans as Mills walks out the door. It is moments like these in which the politics of action heroism reveal their hidden complexity. With the line between “good guy” and “bad guy” blurred, we allow the action hero to cross certain moral boundaries that would otherwise be prohibited. Through a character like Bryan Mills, we experience both the corrupt and unscrupulous pleasures typically reserved for villains, as well as the righteous satisfaction of delivering justice. It’s a very disconcerting catharsis that Morel has constructed for us, as murky and unsettling as Mills’ own policies and politics. His disaffected, badass sensibility is at once seductive and frightening: we would want him on our side, but would never want to be at his mercy.