The coolest thing in Taken lasts about three seconds. We see a guy elude his pursuer by jumping from a highway onto the street below and, as he stands up unhurt, get whacked by a truck that neither he nor the audience saw coming. Kudos to the stunt team for what could be the finest-ever twist on a standard action-movie bit of business.
The second best part of Taken is a phone message the movie's hero, Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), leaves for the man who has just kidnapped his 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). "I don't know who you are," Bryan says, his voice icy with a strong man's resolve. "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." Ba-dump. (See TIME's top 10 film performances of 2008.)
Befitting a B-minus exploitation film, that steely speech is in the 30-sec. TV spot that sold Taken as a smart thriller and that will probably land the movie at No. 1 for the weekend. But if a movie's high points are a quick smack of carnage and a steely speech that everyone's already seen in the trailer, you know it must be January. That's the time of year when no film is bad enough to go direct to DVD, and studios dump their slag on a public eager to flee from all those high-minded Oscar contenders and see a real movie.
Taken could have been a real movie, and a good one. It spices its torture-porn premise a man trying to save his daughter from being peddled as the tender meat in a white-slave ring with Neeson's stolid, solid presence. But the film promises so much more than it delivers that by the end, I felt like registering a complaint with the Obama Administration's consumer-protection squad.
Silly me: I'd been looking forward to Taken, in part because it was directed by Pierre Morel, whose previous film was District 13, a fast-'n'-brutal, half-classic crime movie highlighting the art of parkour. That's the working-class-thug form of gymnastics that sends athletic young men hurtling over roofs, through transoms and down staircases, all without the aid of a digital art brush. Morel, a cinematographer directing his first feature, kept things moving and snarling with a scuzzy brio and made expert use of the artless screen presence of the leading men (one a stunt man, the other a co-creator of parkour). The picture barely broke $1 million at the North American box office, but you can bet the makers of the Bourne and Bond films were watching.
Both Morel movies were produced and co-written by Luc Besson, who's a one-man French film industry. He earned his early rep as a writer-director with Subway, a vivacious crime melodrama, then made the Hollywood-influenced thrillers La Femme Nikita and The Professional (which introduced Natalie Portman) and the Bruce Willis sci-fi hit The Fifth Element. Rarely directing movies anymore, he's produced nearly 70 of them this decade, most set in Paris, many in English, including the Transporter series and a couple of Jet Li action adventures. Besson is Hollywood in another way: on a continent where subsidized moviemaking is the norm something like 70% of the average European film's budget is ponied up by government agencies Besson proudly takes no handouts. So I'm a big Besson fan, theoretically.
The script, which this nonLuc Godard wrote with Robert Mark Kamen, quickly sketches Bryan as your standard-issue CIA superman with a pathetic flaw. He calls himself a "preventer." ("What do you prevent?" "Bad things from happening.") And like most other action heroes, he's an all-or-nothing-at-all fellow. An indifferent husband to Lenore (Famke Janssen, this time looking less than her usual obscenely fabulous), who's remarried and can't stand him, Bryan is trying to redeem himself as a family man by paying extra attention to his daughter.
Mix in one psychological wrinkle: Bryan has a smothering love for Kim that stops just this side of the unnatural. He's quit his CIA job to be near her; he buys her gifts more suitable for a 12-year-old; he hovers galoot-like around her, less a sensible parent than the nerd next to her in chemistry class. He wants her to be Daddy's little girl, always and exclusively, and his devotion to Kim has made him her imaginary swain and something like her real-life stalker. Message to Bryan: Get your own girlfriend.
These roiling undercurrents are hard to miss, but the movie and Neeson seem unaware of them. What they do understand are the conventions of the genre. And one is that when an action hero warns his daughter about imminent danger say, the potential perils of spending the summer in Paris with a classmate Papa knows whereof he preacheth. Perhaps some angel has whispered to him that if the girls did just go safely museum-hopping, it wouldn't be a Luc Besson movie.
But Bryan may also have noticed that Kim and her pal Amanda (Katie Cassidy), left to their own devices, share that special mixture of naiveté and curiosity that makes them idiots. Before they've even gotten out of Charles de Gaulle Airport, they have blithely given their Paris address to a suspiciously friendly fellow who, in short order, dispatches some rough types there to kidnap the girls. The second message of this French-made film: Don't trust the French.
Bryan is on the next flight to Paris, and the rest of the movie follows him as he combs the city's lower-rent arrondissements in search of, first, the Albanian nasties who abducted Kim and ultimately the movers and sheiks who will pay handsomely for the privilege of deflowering her. But to elevate Bryan to preternatural status, all his adversaries must be dim-brained klutzes who can't shoot straight. (He rarely takes on fewer than five at a time.) He also must leave Paris in rubble and his old friendships in shambles. Busting into the home of two such friends, a French police chief and his wife, Bryan shoots the woman in the arm, then threatens to finish her off with a bullet between the eyes unless the policeman does his bidding.
If Morel hadn't stranded his cast in dialogue scenes with lumpy rhythms and action choreography that has a low plausibility factor, I'd guess that Taken means to be a critique of a man as fascinated by his daughter's endangered purity as her predators are and, by extension, of the thriller genre's obsessive hero. Back in the '70s, a cop film mined the similarities between the man with the badge and the criminal he hunted. That was The French Connection, whose wary sympathy for, and exposé of, the cop played by Gene Hackman won the movie an Oscar for Best Picture. But this actual French movie has nothing more on its mind than dozens of bad guys getting beat up and another one turned into instant roadkill.