Saturday, June 27, 2009

In Brief: TAKEN (2009)

There's a women-in-captivity movie feebly struggling to exist in the middle of Pierre Morel's surprise hit, but neither he nor mastermind Luc Besson have the guts to take their movie in that direction. The PG-13 rating constrains them, and constraint is the main characteristic of this surprisingly lame effort. What did people see in the advertising that lured them to the theaters? I wonder whether it wasn't the other side of the "torture porn" equation, the invitation to identify with the torturer in a fantasy of unrestrained righteousness, Jack Bauer style, as opposed to the dare to empathize with victims the horror films throw down. There was clearly an appetite to see a wrathful paternal figure run amok, but amok proves to be an over-generous estimate of Liam Neeson's intensity in this slumming exercise. He's clearly the wrong man for the role, but the character of Bryan Mills is arguably hopeless: a self-pitying shlub with class-envy issues and daddy anxieties focused on a teenage daughter. It's as if Al Bundy proved to be a sleeper-agent hitman and someone had kidnapped Kelly.

A friend I watched this with said it reminded him of Commando in some ways, but it lacks that film's enthusiasm. The foolish movie thinks it's an A picture rather than the exploitation rampage it needed to be. It lacked the courage to implicate itself in the exploitation it portrayed on screen. A true exploitation film would have dared to eroticize the predicament of Neeson's daughter and relied on your own guilty conscience of enjoyment to enhance the horror of her plight. It would also have allowed Neeson to show more enthusiasm, panache or just plain rage in his action scenes. Instead, the transition from shlub to cool ruthless customer is so instantaneous that it loses any credibility. Neeson has no time for genuine anxiety, fear or even indignation. The part needed someone more self-combustible. I naturally think of Mel Gibson because of Ransom, but it seems that plenty of people could have done it better than Neeson. His performance only makes sense if you think of the entire film as a vindication of the wise father and an affirmation of his paternal authority. The father-knows-best theme is cemented when the daughter is marked for doom almost literally from the moment she steps off the plane in Paris. Neeson is only ever performing his fatherly duty, but there's no emotional reward for him except for showing off his connection to a pop star that had already been established before the film's plot actually got started -- at a painfully late point in a relatively short feature. But here's some instant exploitation brainstorming that could have improved the film. Wouldn't it have made Dad even cooler in his daughter's eyes and definitively one-upped ex-wife Famke Janssen if our hero actually ended up with the pop star at the end of picture? Taken is littered with many such unexploited opportunities, and I kick myself for thinking that it's popularity and Neeson's presence meant that it had anything going for it. It didn't.

I give it credit for not getting too neat and tying the daughter's kidnapping to Neeson's secret past, but that meant that the white-slaver villains needed to be more colorful, more evil, more something than they are. But the film works on the assumption that the mere thought of white slavery, along with occasional glimpses of drug-addled victims flopping about, is enough to keep us interested in the bad guys' destruction. It isn't. This project is fatally halfhearted about nearly every aspect of its story, and Neeson isn't even that committed to his work. All I can say in my defense is that at least I waited until I could rent the thing from the library. It cost me no money, at least. If somebody liked it, fine. I'd even be curious to learn why, but I don't expect to be won over. Feel free to try just the same.


J. Astro said...

I thought this looked too much like "MAN ON FIRE", which I think I'll just stick with. The Denzel version, anyway, never saw the original.

Rev. Phantom said...

Too bad the movie didn't go balls out towards exploitation because the plot is ripe for it. I think Neeson would have been the wrong choice if they had decided to do so--I think his days of hamming it up (Darkman) are long over.

Samuel Wilson said...

J., I've never seen Man on Fire,the Denzel version that is, but I'll take your word for it. Maybe I should have seen that instead.

Rev., there's a moment in Taken when Neeson sees his daughter being displayed in a high-tech slave market, and my first thought was that we needed to see the explosions and fire in the background as he watched, just like in Darkman. But everyone was aiming for too high or too neutral a tone.

J. Astro said...

haha re: Liam in "DARKMAN"; "Take the fucking elephant!!!"

Samuel Wilson said...

Taken really did need more "Come and watch the dancing freak" moments.

Anonymous said...

If you really want to see the ultimate torture film, the film that will PUT BUSH BEHIND BARS, see

The Torturer

Coming Fall '09

Or watch the teaser trailer that will make you cringe (if you dare):