by Del Harvey
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French director Pierre Morel had only directed one feature prior to Taken, and that was the intense action film Banlieue 13 (District 13). As a cinematographer his work includes The Transporter, Unleashed (aka Danny The Dog), and War. With a pedigree like that, he seems a shoo-in for action films. True to form, his work in the 2008 film Taken is full of hardcore, take-your-breath-away action scenes. The difference is that his star is Liam Neeson, someone known more for his acting abilities than just simply being an action star.
The premise of Taken is also pretty straightforward, and it’s a grabber; ex-spy/special ops agent Brian Mills (Neeson) has retired early so that he can try to salvage what he can of his damaged relationship with his daughter after having missed so much of Kim’s (Maggie Grace) childhood. He lives in a lower middle class apartment in LA (and if you’ve ever lived in LA, you know “lower” is slang for really pathetic and about as low as you can go and still be middle class), he drives a crappy economy car, he calls faithfully, and he is nearby whenever she beckons. Which, by her 17th birthday, has been not once. Still, he continues to show up for all the important days - her birthday, Christmas, etc. His ex, Lenore (Famke Janssen), has not only left him in the dust but also remarried to a financially successful corporate exec whose birthday gifts to Kim - a quarter horse - literally fling horse pucky all over any feeble attempts by her real father.
Some of his co-workers from the old days are in town for a simple security job protecting a well-known singer and they invite Brian to work with them. He does and, of course, there is an opportunity for him to take out a stalker and would-be assailant, thus earning the undying respect and gratefulness of the younger woman, who offers to give Kim a chance with her singing coach and her agent, if she’s got a voice. But Brian never gets the chance to offer this tidbit up to Kim; her stepdaddy has given her an all-expenses trip to Europe so she can spend the summer following U2 on their European tour. Before this can happen, they need Daddy’s signature on the release form so that the minor can travel with her 19 year old party girl companion, Amanda (Katie Cassidy). Brian is not comfortable with his daughter going off on such a trip and stalls, only upsetting his now spoiled daughter and further earning the ire of his ex.
Finally giving in, he gets a couple of hugs from his daughter. Taking her to the airport, he discovers that she lied to him about the whole trip - she only told him she was going to Paris. Once the girls land in Paris they are met in a taxi line by a charming and attractive young Frenchman who offers to split a taxi with them into Paris, conning them out of their address once they arrive. No sooner are the girls in their apartment does Brian call and as Kim talks to him on the phone, she witnesses her friend being forceably abducted by strange men. Daddy instructs her on what to do, informing her that she will be their next target. Sure enough, she’s dragged from under the bed. One of her captors picks up the phone, giving Brian a chance to say one of the best little speeches in an action film in a while:
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
The captor only says, “Good luck,” before dropping the phone to the floor and smashing it with his foot.
Brian is immediately on the line to his buddies, having taped the conversation and forwards it to them using one of his many gadgets. Arriving at his ex’s mansion, he explains what has happened and informs stepdaddy that he will provide Brian with a plane to Paris right now. Lenore is crying, stepdaddy is fumbling around trying to keep up, and Brian is searching for any clues he can to his daughter’s life. Cut to: Paris.
Brian is now hell bent on finding his daughter at any cost. The action rips into high gear and barely lets up as Brian uses his lifetime of learned skills and instinct to tear through a human trafficking ring of Albanians, a corrupt cop, a multi-millionaire oil sheikh, and anyone else who keeps him from his daughter.
Taken is, from a filmmaker’s perspective, a near-perfect blend of dramatic story and action film. The actors all give excellent performances and elevate the plot above that of most simple action films. The director does an excellent job of coaxing the best from his actors and of making the film’s plot points connect without stretching the limits of reality too, too much. However, there are moments when you just know that the filmmakers had to make a decision to include this or exclude that, and instead decided to rely upon the pacing and action to carry the story. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but for the most part we can find a way to accept what we are shown.
More than anyone, Neeson does a fine job of convincing us his older, retired agent is capable of taking out 9 men in a single action scene. One reason is that his character is given ample motivation; rescuing his flesh and blood. With that impetus, he is driven towards his goal, and if that means karate-chopping an attacker in the throat and killing them instantly, then that’s what he will do. And does, quite often. His character was obviously quite creative in his former life, because Brian shows his capacity to kill with a number of quick and efficient methods. There is only one scene which provides too many coincidences for his character to overcome the baddies, but once we’re beyond that, it’s right back to the fast-paced action.
Morel has done an excellent job with his second directorial effort, and unlike many action film directors, has chosen a vehicle which attempts to elevate the project with quality rather than with more explosions or more action. He relied upon dramatic effect and logic rather than simple action, as so often is the case. As a result, Taken is a very potent, highly intense action film which satisfies on several levels. It is not perfect by any means, but - like its protagonist - it is efficient, it is what it promises to be, and it is suspenseful.
Taken was released on May 12, 2009, in three versions; standard one-disc DVD, two-disc DVD with a number of extras, and Blu-Ray. Here are the details:
Two-Disc Extended Cut Blu-ray Disc Specs:
Two-Disc Extended Cut DVD Specs:
Single-Disc Extended Cut DVD Specs:
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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