Director: Pierre Morel
Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Jansenn, Olivier Rabourdin, Holly Valance, Xander Berkeley
Running Time: 93 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
It's been a while since I've seen commercial spots for a film as effective as those for the action thriller Taken. Essentially a full-length trailer, it laid all its cards out on the table by showing the entire pivotal kidnap scene and dared you not to see how it all turns out. It was a brilliant strategy that paid off as audiences flocked to the theater making it a rare successful February release at the time of year when garbage is routinely dumped into multiplexes. The only drawback to this strategy was the scene they chose to show was so exciting, well-acted and well-written that there was a great chance that the rest of it wouldn't be able to measure up. Now after finally seeing it I can say that it does and it doesn't. It has some issues that have been generously (but understandably) overlooked by many.
Maybe we've gotten so used to crap being being released at this time of year that when we're given the slightest glimpse of an intelligent action vehicle we wet our pants with excitement. There's some truth in that but the more probable explanation is that Taken as a perfect example of how a gifted dramatic actor can make B-movie potboiler material appear to be more than what it is. There is some sharp writing and incredibly choreographed fight scenes but the real reason for the film's sucess is the powerhouse performance of Liam Neeson. It's amazing how someone of his caliber can lift what would have otherwise been just a generic thriller. And who could have guessed he had this role in him?
Ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills (Neeson) is enjoying his recent retirement until he's coaxed back into action by his old buddies to handle security for a pop star (Holly Valance). He ends up saving her life, proving he's still got what it takes, which is good news because soon he's really gonna need it. Desperately trying to reconnect with his 17 year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) he eventually gives in to his nasty ex-wife Lenore's (Famke Janssen) nagging and reluctantly signs the permission slip for her to go with her best friend (Katie Cassidy) to Paris for a couple of weeks. As someone who's seen his fair share of evil in the world he knows traveling abroad is dangerous for a 17 year-old girl, especially one who acts like she's 8, dresses like she's 12, and gets a pony for her birthday. He wants her to call him immediately upon her arrival and of course within the first few minutes of her stay in the hotel she's abducted by a group of evil Arabs running a sex trafficking ring. This leads to that electrifying aforementioned scene in which Mills calmly and rationally states his intentions for the kidnappers if they continue along this path. With the window for finding her closing by the second he heads into a seedy Albanian underworld to find Kim and kill those responsible for her abduction.
It's a relief to finally see a thriller that actually makes some logical decisions and features a protagonist who uses his intellect as well as his brawn to eliminate his adversaries. From the first moment Mills discovers what's happened he lays out his plan and executes it step by step systematically destroying everyone in his path without hesitation and predicting every possible outcome. He's Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, MacGyver and James Bond all rolled into one. Helping is that script tells us very little about him other than that he worked for the CIA, a fact not even his family is privy to. This prevents us from questioning too much how this guy can do everything he does so when the film does stretch credibility to its breaking point we buy it.
The screenplay was co-written (along with Mark Kamen) by Luc Besson, best known for introducing the world to Natalie Portman in The Professional and directing the underrated sci-fi fantasy The Fifth Element. He has a knack for crafting fun films with just enough intelligence to not make you feel too guilty about enjoying yourself. It's trash done well and director Pierre Morel does about as good a job as possible staging the fight scenes in a believable enough way that we're on the edge of our seats, although I have no clue how this got away with a PG-13 rating. If there's an aspect where the movie fails miserably it's in its depiction of the family dynamic or making us care about whether this girl is actually found. Neeson's intensity makes up for a great deal of that but not everything.
Even though the role thankfully isn't large, Maggie Grace's performance is dreadful in every possible way, bordering on Razzie worthy. I was warned going in it would be bad and boy was it. Though undeniably easy on the eyes, she's too old for the role and someone made the really bad call having her act even YOUNGER to overcompensate. Grace fared fine with a more mature, age appropriate role on the first season of Lost so this feels like a giant step back. She giggles like a little school girl, cries "daddy!" and even kicks her feet up and flails her arms while she runs. If I didn't know better I'd think by the way she was playing her that the character had a developmental disability.
Whether this was a concious decision by the writers or director to stress Kim's "innocence" or improvisation on Grace's part I have no idea but either way it's an embarrassment because teenagers just don't act this way. It's especially surprising considering the script's attention to detail involving everything else related to the kidnapping. On the plus side, the performance does make it more beleivable that a girl like this wouldn't last a second overseas and turns him into the "father of the year" for having serious concerns about her going despite the approval of Janssen's one-dimensional bitch character.
None of those details should even matter though because Neeson provides all the credibility this movie needs. At 56 years-old he's every bit as believable as an action hero as either Christian Bale or Matt Damon and brings a sense of legitimacy to even the most ridiculous of circumstances. He delivers a line to his ex-wife's new husband (Xander Berkeley) that plays just right with the perfect infusion of sarcastic humor that suggests he knows exactly the type of movie he's in.
We always knew Neeson was great, but sometimes you need to see an actor slum it in B-level material to find out just how much they can do. It either drags them down (like it so often does Nicolas Cage) or they rise to the occasion unexpectedly and everything else around them improves because of it. Neeson definitely fits into the latter category. He's the reason to see this. Supposedly, there's a sequel in the works which makes sense because there are a lot of different directions Neeson could go with the Mills character considering we still know very little about what makes him tick. But for now, at a time of year where most films released are disposable, it's a nice surprise to be rewarded with a semi-intelligent thriller that knows how to have fun.