“Taken” is satisfyingly mindless yet surprisingly well developed

My last post on NFL’s overtime system, which I wrote weeks ago but posted only last Friday, reminds me of the film “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” (2002) with Eddie Murphy:  you know it’s bad, you know it’s aged, you know it won’t do well, but you have to release it because you’ve made it.  At least I have an excuse since I had no where else to post it; “Pluto Nash” could have gone directly to DVD.

Speaking of films, and I have been advised I should warn that this review contains spoilers (although it was my effort to try to write a real movie review, unlike in my prior attempt with “Mamma Mia” (2008) and “Quantum of Solace” (2008), which omitted any discussion of the plot and assumed the reader saw the film)…


Rating:  9/10

Taken Poster

The premise of “Taken” (2009), in which Liam Neeson convincingly plays an endearing father and a ruthless retired CIA operative out for revenge, is so simple it can be summarized by a scene captured  in the trailer and cited in the poster where Neeson’s character says:  “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.”

That’s really all you need to see to understand the plot (and the trailer, unlike with some films, accurately depicts the actual film), but the premise is carried out with surprisingly strong character and story development.  Neeson, most renowned for competently playing Luke Skywalker’s father’s master’s master in the otherwise atrocious “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” (1999), plays Bryan Mills, a  CIA “preventer” who retired and moved to Los Angeles to spend more time with his 17 year old daughter, Kim, an aspiring singer who lives with her mother, Lenore, and her wealthy step father.  Over the objections of  “paranoid” Bryan, Kim goes to France with her teenage friend Amanda, only to be kidnapped by an unknown group of men while she’s on the phone with her dad.  Bryan, who acts quickly to tape the conversation, learns that the voices on the other side belong to Albanian immigrants who kidnap young girls for slave trade.  He has only 96 hours to get his daughter back.  And from there, the hunt begins.

Whether it’s due to our innate desire for justice or violence, vigilante films have allure.  It’s hardly difficult to pull off the formula, which requires simplicity and thoughtlessness.  There can be no moral relativity.  The good and bad must be clearly demarcated, the former must be likable and the latter detestable, and viewer must want the former to triumph and the latter eliminated.

The strength of “Taken” is in the screenwriter’s ability to get the most mileage out of this hackneyed plot.  Really, to make the movie work (and sufficiently entertaining), it was only necessary to make clear that Bryan loved Kim.  What was pleasantly surprising–and thus distinguishing it from other mindless fun like “Shooter” (2007)–is the level of depth in their relationship.  Yes, Bryan is a typical estranged father who regrets committing so much time to work he lost valuable time with his daughter.  But while too many films overplay the hand by throwing in a resentful daughter and a clueless father, in “Taken,” Kim returns her father’s love and Bryan knows (and remembers) she wants to be a singer.  In that sense, while scenes where Bryan takes a temporary job as a security guard for a pop singer take away from the general story line, they nonetheless contribute in taking the film up a notch from simply entertaining to quality entertainment.  It doesn’t hurt that Neeson can play the loving father as convincingly as the vengeful vigilante.  In fact, quite impressively, he can play both at once as he does in a scene at a dinner table.

Of course, the film would be an unqualified disaster if it failed to execute well the action sequences–they are, after all, the point of the film–but here again, the film exceeds expectations.  As it must be in a film like this, the justice Bryan imposes is swift and without mercy, damn the consequences of doing so in a foreign country.  And there is plenty of Texas justice to go around as Bryan methodically tracks down first those who are responsible for the kidnapping, then those in possession of his daughter.  Skills Bryan honed while serving his government are amply displayed as he identifies the criminals, tracks them down, looks for his next target, and gets his revenge.  Firearm marksmanship, espionage equipment, martial arts.  They’re all there, presented in high paced, action packed sequences.  Once Bryan’s hunt begins, the film takes almost no breather.  The ultimate satisfaction of “Taken” is in the length and extent Bryan must go to rescue his daughter.  That voice on the other side of that phone call?  His death isn’t the end of the film.

“Taken” has been categorized as a “surprise hit,” although I didn’t quite understand why because upon seeing the trailer, I immediately placed the film on a must-see.  It’s a testament to the film that I highly anticipated it and didn’t disappoint.  Usually, a “surprise hit” equates with low budget films with no expectations, but I saw no evidence the quality of the film suffered because of lack of funds.  I have an affinity for low-explosive, highly paced action scenes in Europe–not surprising as a fan of the James Bond and the Bourne series–and I was quite pleased with the chase and action scenes through Paris.

One may take issue with how quickly and easily Bryan is able to go from one villain to the next when he seems to kill them before he can get any information.  Indeed, one often wonders whether all he needs to do is walk around Paris before he stumbles into someone he’s got to kill.  And that 96 hour deadline?  That must be 96 hours in the world of Jack Bauer.  But to ask for a rational, coherent storyline in “Taken” is like asking for romance in a war film (think “Pearl Harbor” (2001)).  It’s effort misdirected and result unnecessary.

My only complaint is a matter of personal pet peeve.  I am not a fan of modern cinematography in which it is apparently a sin to have extended opening credits with background music.  As far as I can tell, the annoying trend of starting the film even as opening credits roll started with Steven Spielberg.  “Taken” has taken (pardon the pun) this idea to the extreme, dispensing with any introductions in the opening minutes except to mention Liam Neeson, the title, and Pierre Morel, the director.  The film scored record time in naming the director–a not entirely promising beginning to a viewer who looks forward to James Bond films partly because they remain faithful to the traditional opening.  Of course, “The Happenning” (2008) was satisfactory in that regard, but the rest of the film was anything but.   Thankfully, “Taken” didn’t suffer the same fate.

“Taken,” still shown in theatres nation-wide, has quietly grossed over $100 million at the box office.


11 Responses to ““Taken” is satisfyingly mindless yet surprisingly well developed”

  1. 1 Ryan March 9, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    I enjoyed it because the action started a few minutes after the opening and didn’t stop until they ran the credits. I mean there were no “pee break” moments of slow sappy dialogue. Just lots of killing. Just the way I like it.

    • 2 joesas March 9, 2009 at 2:29 pm


      Thanks for leaving a comment!

      The action sequences were surely fun. I thought Neeson was great.

  2. 3 Miran March 10, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    I have to say… Liam Neeson definitely carried the film, because the majority of the ancillary characters (minus his former colleagues) were annoyingly shortsighted! My boyfriend wanted us to watch this movie to dissuade me from travelling alone, and while I am not stupid enough to make the mistakes made by the girls, it does make me think twice about always being vigilant, even while relaxing during a holiday.

    The scene of that “cute” spotter getting squashed by a truck was a satisfying jolt.

    On a lighter note, did you spot Napoleon Dynamite’s uncle?

    • 4 joesas March 10, 2009 at 9:35 pm

      Hey Miran! Thanks for posting!

      I’m kind of surprised you didn’t like the supporting characters, because I thought that was the strength of the film (Neeson is without being said). In all of these movies the “victims” act dumb, but I didn’t think Kim was particularly idiotic. I could certainly imagine my acting like that when I was 17 (but not you Miran… Maybe that’s the difference? LOL).

      That scene where the spotter got randomly hit by a truck was just hysterical. I felt like I was watching “24” mixed with “Final Destination” mixed with “Bourne Identity.”

      And I totally missed ND’s uncle…

  3. 5 Miran March 10, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    btw, it says that I posted my previous comment at noon. It’s actually 3pm, so I guess u’ve set this website at Mountain Standard Time? (Not that it’s a big deal, lol)

    • 6 joesas March 10, 2009 at 9:36 pm

      Yes, the time was always screwed up and until now, I didn’t realize that it was a setting I could adjust…

      I fixed it along with engaging “nested” comments. I think both are good improvements to the blog.

  4. 7 Miran March 14, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Haha, I can be a little paranoid/suspicious.

    Wow, the flick raked in $190 million so far!

    • 8 joesas March 14, 2009 at 12:26 pm

      Wow! $190 million! I didn’t expect it to be that popular… I heard couple weeks ago that it crossed $100 million. I guess it keeps humming along.

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