‘Taken’ works best when it abandons all sense

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Takentaken
Directed by Pierre Morel
Written by Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Besson
2008, USA

With the arrival of the Obama age, filmgoers will now render their verdict on what remains of the spy thriller, a genre that found itself massively retooled during the Bush era. In the age of extraordinary rendition and “enhanced” interrogation methods, we had Jason Bourne, a newly brutalized James Bond, and, most tellingly, the all-American torturer Jack Bauer. Pierre Morel’s Taken (co-written by Luc Besson) saw release in the UK about six months ago, making it the last of the Bush-era spook thrillers, a loaded gun arriving on the same week that America’s shiny new president extended the Muslim world an olive branch in a televised interview.

Taken stars stalwart dramatist – and chiseled darkman type – Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, an ex-“preventer” (serious shades of 24 here) who used to do all kinds of nasty work for the American government before retiring to be closer to his estranged daughter (Maggie Grace) and possibly his ex-wife (Famke Janssen, doing her best “impatient face” throughout). Mills’ kid heads out for an idealistically good time in Europe, and finds herself kidnapped by a group of Albanian (aka generically alien) thugs with – what else? – sex slavery in mind. Mills immediately kicks back into spook mode and it’s off, as ever, to the races.

Taken‘s advantages are at first significant; first, Neeson is no Sutherland – his rock-face visage and sad eyes make for a potentially compelling central figure for an action film, and second, its willingness to take its time to develop a bond between father and daughter in its opening half-hour (with only the smallest possible amount of perfunctory violence) indicate the possibility of a more relaxed, ’70s-style approach. When Mills arrives in France, however, the film goes into freefall. Morel does fine with hand-to-hand fighting (though the moves aren’t as inventive as the best of the Bourne films), but once Mills gets in a vehicle, you’ll soon give up on trying to remember who’s driving what, into what, thanks to some truly awful editing. The film’s tone is too sombre throughout to provide for much comic relief, which is also a problem when the particulars of the plot are this arbitrary. Mills moves from enemy to enemy, working his way up (or down) some crazily convoluted ladder, with each circle of baddies more ludicrous than the previous, but none leaves an impression. By the film’s end, we meet a debauched Sheik of indeterminate origin or purpose, and his clichéd pomposity leads us to believe there’s a scantily clad woman hand-feeding him grapes just outside the frame.

The film works best when it abandons all sense and lets itself descend into a senseless free-for-all – in its most memorable scene, Mills loses his patience with a former ally and non-chalantly shoots his wife in the arm – “just a flesh wound.” he insists, but it’s such a sudden escalation of violence at such an unlikely target that all we can do is laugh. Taken would have worked best as go-for-broke spectacle. The film’s bloody single-mindedness throughout its 95-minute runtime reminds us that we may very well be leaving behind the realm of the “preventers,” action stars who shoot (and electrocute) first and then maybe ask some questions later. Taken‘s tired plough indicates that Bauer’s ever-ticking clock might only spell the end of his world – not ours.

Simon Howell

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