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Taken

D: Pierre Morel / 93m

Cast: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Olivier Rabourdin, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Holly Valance, Katie Cassidy, Gérard Watkins, Xander Berkeley

Retired government agent (or “preventer”) Bryan Mills (Neeson) is divorced from his wife Lenore (Janssen) and struggling to re-connect with his daughter, Kim (Grace). He’s over-protective, which works against him, and never more so when, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, Kim tells him she’s been invited to stay in Paris during the summer. He’s against the idea at first, but eventually gives his permission for her to go. Travelling with her friend, Amanda (Cassidy), Kim arrives in Paris and they settle into the apartment where they’re staying. But on the first night, intruders break in to the apartment, and Kim, who’s on the phone to her father, watches as she sees them grab Amanda, and then come looking for her.

Bryan learns that her abductors are Albanians who specialise in human trafficking, kidnapping young female tourists to be sold as sex slaves to the highest bidder. He travels to Paris, and with the help of old friend, Jean-Claude (Rabourdin), devises a plan to find Kim and get her back. He learns about a construction site where there is a problem with “new merchandise”, but Kim isn’t there; instead he finds a woman who has Kim’s jacket. He leaves with her and holes up in a hotel room where she tells him about a house in the Rue de Paradis. The house proves to be where the Albanians have their base. Bryan kills all but one of them, whom he tortures for more information.

The Albanian tells Bryan about a man called Saint Clair (Watkins), who hosts parties that act as cover for the buying and selling of any kidnapped women. Brian sees Kim there, but before he can rescue her, he’s knocked unconscious. When he comes to, Saint Clair and his henchmen have Bryan tied up, and are about to kill him…

Taken - scene

Back in 2008, the idea of Liam Neeson playing a full-on action role was regarded as a bit unusual, partly because few of his previous roles had been in the action genre, and partly because of his age (he was fifty-six at the time). But despite the preposterous, gung-ho approach taken by writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, Neeson’s über-serious portrayal of Mills somehow offset the movie’s cocksure silliness, and made Taken a huge success at the box office (the movie took around $225 million worldwide).

The idea of a man with “a special set of skills” running riot in Paris with a flagrant disregard for the law or due process, while not exactly new, benefits hugely from Neeson’s performance. His single-minded pursuit of his daughter’s kidnappers grounds the movie so effectively that even when Mills is directly in the line of fire of a man with a semi-automatic weapon and he doesn’t receive so much as a scratch, it’s almost like an entitlement; he’s a father, and what he’s doing is right (godammit).

This leads to a lot of indiscriminate killing, and in one sequence casual maiming, as Mills sense of justice borders on the psychopathic (he shoots one Albanian in the back, something our cinematic heroes are very rarely seen to do). This unapologetic violence is what gives the movie its edge, as Mills’ unfettered brutality keeps the audience wondering just how far he will go to rescue his daughter. Neeson is completely focused and convincing, and when you realise just how committed he is, you almost begin to feel sorry for the bad guys – they really don’t stand a chance (even with the nature of the script and the storyline, they really don’t stand a chance).

Away from the continual bloodshed, the earlier scenes where we first meet Bryan and Kim are more compulsory than enthralling, while the idea that Bryan sees his daughter as being younger than she is and in need of more “protection” is never fully developed (when he tells Lenore Kim’s been abducted you half expect him to say, “I told you so”). This is less a kind of over-developed fatherly concern and more of a deep-rooted paranoia, which might have had a more effective pay-off if Kim had been kidnapped because of something he did in the past. As it is, it still leaves Bryan Mills as one seriously screwed-up ex-government agent, and his morally dubious approach to “working” makes him more interesting than most armed avengers.

This extra-added depth to the main character, allied with Neeson’s compelling performance, makes Taken a bit of a guilty pleasure. Benson and Kamen’s script does its best to plug up any plot holes when they crop up, but it doesn’t always succeed – Bryan’s friend, Sam (Orser), identifies the kidnapper Bryan speaks to over the phone with only two words to go on (that’s some voice recognition software they’ve got there!) – and outside of Bryan, Kim and Lenore, characterisations are kept to a minimum, with broad brush strokes used throughout. As the bad guys, the Albanians could have been Russian or Croatian or any other Eastern European ethnic minority, and lack an identity as a result: they’re just there to be despatched as quickly as possible.

The fight scenes are cleverly constructed and choreographed to make Neeson look like he’s doing most of his own stunts (though when he’s not it’s a little too obvious), and it all looks appropriately bone-crunching and painful (the sound effects guys must have a field day on these kinds of movies). And as if to pour scorn on the idea that French stunt drivers aren’t the best in the world, there’s a short sequence involving Bryan chasing a boat that is as brazenly exciting and well edited as any in, say, The Transporter movies, or Ronin (1998). Having cut his teeth on The Transporter (2005), Morel directs with confidence and knows enough to let Neeson take the reins and do what he does best, while injecting a fierce intensity into the action scenes. Janssen and Grace provide adequate support (though Grace does overdo the squeals of delight when Kim gets something she wants), while a sub-plot involving a pop star (Valance) comes and goes so quickly that you wonder why it was included.

Rating: 8/10 – a thudding, crunching, pumped-up action movie shot mostly at night for maximum atmosphere, Taken is a supremely confident addition to the lone avenger sub-genre of action movies; with a commanding central performance by Neeson that re-energised his career, this should be filed under “Gratuitous Violence – for the enjoyment of”.

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