Taken. 2008. Directed by Pierre Morel. Screenplay by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen.
Starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Kate Cassidy, Holly Valance, & Famke Janssen. 20th Century Fox/EuropaCorp/M6 Films/Grive Productions.
Unrated. 91 minutes.
As a director, I dig Pierre Morel mostly. His first feature District B13 is by far his best work. Although, Morel does nice stuff working off a solid script from Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. If there’s anything Besson knows incredibly well it’s action, plus he Kamen have worked together before on The Fifth Element. Even only as a writer Besson works with action in a way others don’t always manage. Already having done a big feature, Morel takes the talents of the writers and turns this into a revolutionary action flick. Yes, I said revolutionary. Because with Liam Neeson in the saddle as lead ass kicker Bryan Mills this movie made way for all the older stars in Hollywood to come back with their action-styled (usually revenge) thrillers.
Taken wraps us in darkness. Our adventure begins with a personal family drama before morphing into a sprawling, dare I say epic mission of revenge, of love, of survival. Mills goes to every length in the search for his daughter after human traffickers take her. We dip into a world highly foreign to any normal person, as Bryan goes further down into the rotten basement of Parisian life discovering danger after danger. There’s a lot of great cinematography, which gives the film a nice look and in turn helps with the action sequences. Nothing worse than lame looking action. This is a visually exciting, stunt-filled fight to the last breath. From the moment the first punch is thrown, you know this will be something intriguing to watch. The sequels don’t match up. Don’t hold that against this one, as Taken holds it own weight in blood, bullets, kicks, and punches.
The one interesting thing about the whole screenplay is how Bryan is paralleled with the new husband of his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). At the beginning, he gives his daughter a present that she likes, but then that guy outdoes him with a horse. It’s ridiculous, and embarrassing to see these people fawning over money like that while Bryan clearly loves his daughter. Well, tragically he gets to prove exactly what he’s really worth by using his “particular set of skills.” He proves who the real father is by going to find his daughter after she’s been kidnapped. Money doesn’t mean anything if you can’t keep your children safe. Likewise, in that whole angle is the fact that because of those special skills he did damage to his family. So there’s an irony in all of it. The whole screenplay and its plot is built on an irony, in that Bryan sends his daughter off to Europe only to be tricked by her and Lenore as to the reason for the trip; the ex-wife cons him in, saying it’s safe, and despite his best judgement he relents. Then his daughter’s nabbed.
I find the whole sequence where Kim (Maggie Grace) is taken tense as hell. There’s a scary element to the whole thing, but watching Bryan listen to his daughter as they come for her, screaming out whatever she can to identify the captors, it’s super emotional and also wild. That whole mini-monologue he gives to the man over the cellphone is perfect, Neeson knocks it out of the park. It could easily come off as cheesy. Instead, Neeson makes the lines powerful and savage without going over-the-top.
Part of the enjoyment in watching Bryan Mills take apart these Albanian gangsters and pimps is because of the dark subject matter. This is an element of what sets Taken apart from the pack. It could easily fall into the realm of unforgettable action-thrillers. Not with Besson and Kamen putting their heads together. These gangsters traffick in humans, women in particular. They sell ladies into sexual slavery. It’s a hideous business that goes on around the world largely unchecked. Taking us into the sordid dens and luxury yachts, the screenplay sheds light on a murky underworld. Then it lets Bryan smash this little criminal universe to bits. It’s all the more satisfying in action film when you can legitimately hate the people against which the hero is fighting. In this case these human traffickers deserve every last bit of pain Bryan brings along with him. Along the way even Bryan must get a little dirty, as he and his friend have a falling out when he worries the man is in on some of the shady business; when he shoots the guys wife I’m always WOWed.
An action film, no matter its story, always has to rely on the strength of – ta daaa! – its action sequences. There don’t even need to be elaborate sets, as long as the fights themselves are interesting. Now certainly there is no shortage or want for sets. We travel all over Paris, through the streets, through the buildings, and further on. Through walls, onto boats, into cars. But just the sheer awesomeness of the fights is something to behold. Right from the first moment Bryan steps foot on Parisian soil there are moments of ass kickery. And the stunts are all spectacular. Just the way Bryan gets pulled from the cab when he’s confronting that little weasel Peter, his face smacks the ground; brilliant, brief bit that leads into another guy for him to fight. Everything escalates, of course, as action so often does. The fights get bigger, more intense. Bryan fights his way through a number of Albanian henchmen in various situations of close quarters combat, and it’s oh so wonderful. And the body count? 35 men. He kills thirty-five different people on his way to find Kim. That’s pretty solid for an action flick. Not a small number by any means in terms of murder. Not too big so that’s it overly abundant and makes things implausible; y’know, if this would’ve really happened I could believe thirty-five, maybe not a full hundred.
A side note – Liam Neeson received training in combatives and weapons handling skills from a former SAS (Special Air Services) soldier Mick Gould, whose work as a technical advisor, weapons trainer, and combat specialist includes films like Heat, Ronin, Collateral, Public Enemies, and more. It’s interesting to see the type of training actors receive, and you can tell in a number of scenes Neeson has a grasp on what he’s doing. They make it look flashy. Though it’s hard to fake some things and Neeson does a fine job, in my opinion.
A few of my favourite sequences are as follows…
The initial big fight with some of the Albanians at the construction site. Not only does Bryan kick a few asses, there’s a nice little chase sequence, some guns to boot. That’s another reason Taken is a proper action movie – you’re never stuck with the same thing, over and over. Yes, there are a ton of fights, yet they’re all interesting and unique in their own way. In between, you get this chase to keep the pace steady and the adrenaline flowing.
When Bryan makes his way into the Albanian hideout under the pretence of being a dirty cop, this fight is magnificent. Because the efficiency of his skills makes for an interesting watch. Neeson isn’t ancient, but he’s getting on. To have him playing Bryan and doing a bit of fighting is totally entertaining. He gives it everything, which shows in the final product. The following torture scene is pretty inventive, as much as it is nasty.
You’ll be hard pressed to find lots of action like Taken. It isn’t perfect, nor is it anything as technically innovative as other big blockbuster movies that came before its time. Still, it’s a revolutionary bit of cinema because of its star, how it pushes the limit on his abilities, as well as the fact the script is willing to get dark and dirty. Right to the last fight, you’ll be wondering exactly how Bryan Mills is prepared to get out of each situation in which he finds himself. And somehow, he keeps swinging. The finale is one of my favourite sequences, as it features a saucy little weapon called a karambit, which is an Indonesian fighting blade; it’s extremely hard to disarm because of a finger hole at the handle, which is evident during Bryan’s struggle with the man holding one. Everything leading up to these moments is action packed and wild as hell. This will always be one of those action flicks I can put on any time to enjoy, never gets old. Neither does Neeson, apparently.