20 July 2009

Movie review: Taken

I’m back from vacationing in Oregon. Let’s watch a movie.

Taken (2008)
Directed by Pierre Morel. Starring Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace.

The French film Taken turned into one of the surprises of 2009 when it showed enormous staying power in January and February at the North American box-office. It ended up grossing over $144 million in the U.S. and Canada; with its foreign money factored in, it took in the sum of $220 million in movie theaters. Considering the initial price tag of $25 million, Taken will easily rank as one of 2009’s most profitable movie ventures.

Pretty good for a film that opened in France in Febuary 2008, and didn’t get to the U.S. until almost a year later.

It’s obvious looking at Taken that it was supposed to reach the English-speaking world eventually. It was shot mostly in English, doesn’t have a particularly Gallic feeling, and sports two well-known faces stateside: Liam Neeson and Famke Janssen. But if the wait to reach U.S. theaters was spent thinking out a good marketing strategy, it was time well spent.

Taken is a meat-and-potatoes espionage thriller; nothing about it is surprising, it avoids going any place unexpected, and it never delivers a “great scene.” But it’s also pretty good entertainment, and better than most films released in January have any right to be. Its lack of pretension is one of its selling points. However, the biggest selling point is its star.

Without Liam Neeson to give it gravitas, I doubt if Taken would have gotten far out of the gate in North America. The premise is so basic—angry father goes after the men who kidnapped his daughter—that it needs an actor who can hunker down and really play the damned thing. Neeson is that sort of fellow. He’s done some terrible films before (you don’t remember Gunshy, and you are better off because of it), but he does bring an austerity and dignity to whatever he does. Well, almost. His characteristic presence was strangely absent from The Phantom Menace, even though he was ideally cast as a Jedi Knight. However, he made up for it with his “dark mentor” version of Ra’s al-Ghul in 2005’s Batman Begins. Liam Neeson is the sort of actor who can hammer down a line like: “You burned my house down and left me for dead; consider us even.” He can play grave without looking like he’s trying—a great accomplishment.

In Taken, Neeson plays the part of an ex-CIA agent named Bryan Mills, who puts himself into retirement so he could be near his teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), in Los Angeles. Kim’s mother Lenore (Janssen) has remarried to a filthy rich corporate fellow. Thankfully, the film doesn’t show Kim’s stepfather as some sort of despicable cad, but a respectable man who offers a stability to Lenore that Mills never was able to provide. There are a few hints that Kim’s stepfather has gotten involved in some shady dealings, but this is a point that the film oddly drops. When Kim gets abducted on her vacation in Paris, it seems almost a forgone conclusion that it’s a ransom or vengeance kidnapping against her stepfather. Mills assumes it is, and I did too. Actually, it’s a random event: Albanian sex slavers have grabbed Kim and in ninety-six hours—the film’s arbitrary ticking clock—no one will ever be able to find her.

As I mentioned, this isn’t a film keyed for big shocks. That Kim’s abduction isn’t tied to her stepfather’s past is one example of Taken shrugging aside complicating possibilities and going for the straight-ahead thriller. Bryan Mills makes his declaration that he’ll find his daughter and kill her kidnappers, and he then flies off to Paris to do it. No points for guessing if he accomplishes the task or not.

Although it has the dross of the Euro-thriller, pretty hard to avoid in a French-made film, Taken is essentially a revenge movie where the victim isn’t actually dead yet. These kinds of films provide two standard visceral thrills: 1) Watching the hero beat and kill really nasty bad guys. 2) Watching a skilled hero put everything he has to use . . . so he can efficiently beat and kill really nasty bad guys. Taken delivers on both points. It’s handles Point #2 so smoothly, and with such help from Neeson, that the one time the villains get the drop on him is completely unbelievable. The filmmakers apparently knew it, and cut away from it as fast as possible.

However, Taken lacks a key element to push it from “good” territory into something better. It doesn’t have the one knockout action set-piece that all great thrillers need. Compare it to another thriller that came out at the same time this year, The International, and you’ll understand what I mean. The International isn’t a classic, but I will remember it more than Taken simply on the basis of the intense and astonishing Guggenheim Museum shoot-up. Taken has okay action, with the stand-out as a car pursuit along the shore of the Seine, but nothing roof-raising. Director Pierre Morel executes all the shootings and fisticuffs adequately, but when the lights in the theater go up or the DVD menu returns, there isn’t anything you’ll keep thinking about.

Hey, the popcorn was tasty, the film was only ninety minutes, and it was a good time. I’ll take it. Thanks, France and Liam.