Monday, February 22, 2016

Taken (2008)

Director: Pierre Morel                                     Writers: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Film Score: Nathaniel Méchaly                       Cinematography: Michel Abramowicz
Starring: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Olivier Rabourdin and Maggie Grace

My reaction to films like this is decidedly mixed. On the one hand it’s a tremendous action thriller. The recent trend in European stories and films that really began in earnest with Luc Besson’s The Transporter, have been thoroughly enjoyable, and it’s no coincidence that Besson is responsible for this film as well. On the other hand there’s the subject matter. Sex slavery and sex tourism have become a moral blight on our age. This should be a difficult film for anyone to watch, and if it isn’t then there’s something wrong with us that it’s not more disturbing. Taken deals with the abduction of young girls in Europe who are then drugged and used as sex slaves until they are no longer profitable and then killed and disposed of, vanished without a trace. In this respect it is similar to a number of modern films that have the same flaw. Of course it’s great to see someone rescued from a horrifying situation. 12 Years a Slave did it with slavery in the antebellum South, and The Monuments Men did it with stolen art works during World War Two. But what about the art that wasn’t saved, the slaves that weren’t freed, and the many young women violated in the most dehumanizing way of all? While we walk out of the movie theater buoyed in spirit, those real women the film was based on are still being repeatedly raped and murdered. Movies are a powerful art form, with the ability to shape the way we understand our world. Let’s just hope that in the process of being entertained that we don’t become inured to the real tragedies being portrayed in our fictional adventures.

Liam Neeson is a retired CIA operative who is divorced and trying desperately to hold on to his relationship with his teenage daughter, Maggie Grace, especially now that his ex-wife, Framke Janssen, has remarried and his daughter has a rich step-father. One of the things Grace wants to do is take a trip with her girlfriend, Katie Cassidy, to Paris, which Neeson says is out of the question. He doesn’t have any specific fears, but knows that teenage girls alone in Europe are in a lot of danger. But when his overprotective nature threatens to drive her away, he relents, against his better judgment. Of course, once in Paris the two girls are befriended by Nicholas Giraud, who shares a taxi with them and thus learns where they are staying and that they are alone. Before the two have even unpacked they are accosted by armed men who come to kidnap them. Grace manages to stay hidden long enough to call Neeson, and after she’s captured he has a brief conversation with her captor, Arben Bajraktaraj, to the effect that he has skills and will hunt him down and kill him. Naturally the Bajraktaraj thinks this is impossible and hangs up. But he doesn’t know Neeson is true to his word. Neeson gets help from his former CIA buddy Leland Orser, and then once in Paris from a police friend, Olivier Rabourdin. From this point on the film becomes a cartoon of impossibilities in which Neeson not only finds Bajraktaraj, but gets closer and closer to Grace without getting himself killed.

The story is an original one by Luc Besson. Director Pierre Morel was Besson’s cinematographer on the first Transporter film and on the fourth installment of his French Taxi franchise, and Besson’s company produced the film. Jeff Bridges was the original choice for the lead role, and when he backed out the film was offered to Neeson. Though the actor had worked in Batman Begins by Christopher Nolan, Taken was the first real action film he had appeared in. It was something the actor wanted to try, but it would then lead to a number of such films, including Unknown and The Grey, as well as two sequels to this film and a new direction in his career. As is the case in Besson’s action films, the pace is frenetic and the actions scenes, including car chases, are carefully edited montages that can convey anything from claustrophobia to desolation in Neeson’s pursuit of his daughter. Not unlike the character he plays, this is Neeson’s film all the way. He is relentless and he becomes more humorous as the film goes along. This is especially true in the scene where he tortures Bajraktaraj for information about Grace. The only other actor worthy of mention is Olivier Rabourdin, whose part in the plot is a nice twist. Mercifully, Maggie Grace is only in the first part of the film as she was already twenty-five when the film was shot, and it’s obvious. Her overacting trying to play a teenager is pretty bad.

One thing that’s incredibly refreshing about European action heroes is that there’s no moral angst or handwringing involved. Unlike the heroes in American films--Salt is a prime example, where Angelina Jolie never actually kills anyone--their European counterparts are only interested in getting the job done. Neeson is happy to shoot guys in the back to avoid being killed himself, or allow a subject to die from torture when he’s sure he has all the information he needs. But vicarious participation in revenge, I learned as far back as Frederick Barton’s review of Mississippi Burning, is not something that should sit well with us. Nor is the fact that, while Neeson is hell bent on getting his daughter back, thousands of girls are left to suffer a fate she doesn’t have to. And yet the film does nothing to acknowledge their suffering or even offer the slightest hope that the situation can be ameliorated by the authorities. Certainly good people in police departments all over Europe are doing everything they can to fight this pestilence. Or are they? Watching this film, it’s difficult to know. Increasingly, modern films are celebrating the individual rescue at the expense of the human cost of the problem. It’s too bad Neeson isn’t crying over the lost girls in this picture the way he did for the lost Jews in Schindler’s List. Nevertheless, Taken is an entertaining thriller that deserves its popularity. Let’s just hope we don’t forget the big picture in the process.

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