dir. Pierre Morel
Here is a list of things that Americans know they need to worry about these days: losing their jobs, losing a war, losing their economic superiority to China, getting blown up by North Korea.
Here is something Americans probably didn’t think they had to worry about: getting sold into white slavery. But thanks to director Pierre Morel and writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen—creators of the new film Taken—we now know that rich young white girls traipsing through Europe should fear being kidnapped, drugged, and forced into prostitution by shifty foreigners. Raise your pistols, good Christians, we’re off to raid the opium dens!
In this uneven, un-PC thriller, Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a retired government operative who has moved to Los Angeles to be close to his estranged teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace). The galumphing Bryan spends his days sitting in his spare bachelor pad, watching grainy home movies and eating Chinese takeout straight from the container. The girl, in turn, lives in one of those scarily large California mansions with her mom, Lenore (a sour Famke Janssen), and a rich stepfather who buys her ponies.
Despite Bryan’s strong protestations, Kim is heading off to Paris for the summer with her friend, Amanda (a girl whose blondeness, fondness for Uggs, and casual attitude toward sex will earn her a nasty comeuppance later). From this point forward, everything happens so fast that your sense of belief may experience whiplash. Kim and Amanda are nabbed by sex traffickers within minutes of touching down at Charles de Gaulle, and before you can shout That’s why you never trust a good looking Frenchman!, Bryan has snapped up his old spy-satchel and flown himself to Paris, ready to crush his daughters’ assailants with his bare hands if that’s what it takes to get his little girl back. And of course, that’s exactly what it takes, and exactly what the audience gets for the rest of the movie.
Taken wastes little time in establishing any scenes or characters: The important things here are the rock-‘em, sock-‘em set pieces. So Bryan proceeds to lumber and blast his way through a series of cardboard adversaries—a sweaty Albanian, a venal French bureaucrat, a tuxedo-wearing socialite (“Kill him quietly,” the latter coos at a minion, “I have guests”)—before facing down a fat pasha known only as “the Sheik,” who lolls about on a tacky pleasure boat wearing what looks like a caftan crossed with a track suit, drooling at the thought of getting his meaty hands on Kim’s virginal white flesh. Forget the political implications of this accent-sporting cavalcade. The worse sin is that each is introduced so quickly and then dispatched so effortlessly that none of them even registers as a threat. These bad guys evaporate off the screen, leaving barely a smear of menace behind.
The anonymity of his enemies, however, brings Bryan’s own crimes into greater relief. Taken prides itself on being tough-minded about its hero. Yes, the film says, Bryan is a devoted dad, and not just to his own daughter. (Early on he saves a Britney-esque starlet from being knifed backstage; later, while fleeing truckloads of angry Albanians, he pauses to make sure a coked-out prostitute has her seatbelt on.) But he’s not so high-minded that he’ll pass up an opportunity to make one of his daughter’s kidnappers sizzle on an improvised electric chair, or to sacrifice an innocent woman when it proves expedient. But both these choices are too gratuitous, too obviously pandering to the audience’s perceived bloodlust to lend Bryan any real depth or texture.
Many critics who’ve had otherwise lukewarm-to-hostile reactions to Taken have singled out Neeson’s performance as its sole redeeming factor. This may be true if you lie back and think of Narnia; Neeson makes his hammier lines fairly drip with Aslan-like sonority, which can be fun. (“Jean-Claude, I will tear down the Eiffel Tower if I have to! RAAAWR!”) But Neeson is just slumming here, and he barely connects with what’s going on around him. His phoned-in performance fights against the script—he usually seems more like a slightly awkward uncle than the doting father the storyline demands.
Or maybe—just maybe—that discomfited stance is Neeson’s way of hinting that he’s got something stranger and queasier in mind. Note the compulsiveness with which Bryan pastes photos of Kim in a pristine album, or the creepy way he sidles up to that imperiled starlet, as if he’s going to flash her. Note the odd frisson that fills the screen when he finally sees the kidnapped Kim, roped in strands of diamante and hooded with a jeweled shawl, twirling woozily in a dimly lit auction room. Bryan has his gun wedged behind a slick-looking Arab, and the fervency with which Neeson hisses, “Buy her! Buy her!” is pretty hard to miss. These flashes of perviness are never allowed to add up to much, but they never quite dissipate, either, and over time they start to feel like coded messages from Neeson himself--I wasn’t taken in by Taken, and I hope you weren’t either.