Monday, July 18, 2016

Taken (Europa Films, M6 Films, Grive Productions, 20th Century-Fox, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Stepfather Lifetime showed a movie that not only had a theatrical release but was an enormous hit ($145,000,989 theatrical gross, according to and a game-changer for its star, Liam Neeson — a considerably more illustrious name than we’re used to seeing on Lifetime. Before this film, Taken (2008), Neeson was known primarily as the star of respectable biopics like Schindler’s List and Kinsey; Taken not only changed Neeson’s typecasting to middle-aged action hero but spawned two sequelae (one wonders how since this story seems pretty self-contained) and inspired actress Famke Janssen (who plays Neeson’s ex-wife and the mother of the teenage daughter whose kidnapping is the centerpiece of the story) to join the United Nations’ effort against sex trafficking as a sort of international good-will ambassador. The film starts in Hollywood but soon relocates to Paris; Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is a former CIA agent who retired and settled in L.A. to keep an eye on his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Kim’s mom Lenore (Famke Janssen) divorced him and “married up” to Stuart (Xander Berkeley), who’s some sort of Hollywood bigwig — it’s not clear what he does or where his money comes from, but it is clear he has a lot of it. When the film opens it’s Kim’s birthday and Bryan has bought her a karaoke machine — when Bryan and Lenore were still together and Kim was 12 she expressed an ambition to become a professional singer, which Lenore says she’s outgrown but Kim secretly tells her dad is something she still wants to do. Bryan shows up at Kim’s birthday party and Lenore tells her the rule is that the kids are partying separately and he won’t be allowed to give Kim his present personally — but he defies the rules and does so, only to be upstaged when Stuart presents Kim with a full-sized horse. (The 1929 Al Jolson vehicle Say It With Songs contains a similar sequence — the estranged father of a young boy presents him with a birthday gift but is upstaged by the lavish presents of his mom’s new boyfriend.) The next thing that happens is that Bryan gets a call from three fellow ex-agents to do security for a concert featuring dance-diva Sheerah (Holly Valance), whom Bryan rescues from a security breakdown at the end of her concert. In return Sheerah offers Bryan the numbers of her manager and vocal coach, and says to pass those on to his daughter so she can audition. Bryan makes a date with his daughter to present her the good news — only mom insists on coming too, and her agenda for her daughter is quite different: Kim wants to take a trip to Europe and, because she’s only 17, she needs signed permissions from both her parents to go. Bryan is instantly suspicious — especially when what was presented to him as a tour to study art in Paris turns out to be a jaunt all across Europe to follow U2 on their concert tour — and he insists that Kim take a cell phone with her and call her every night.

The first night Kim and her 19-year-old traveling companion Amanda (Katie Cassidy) fly into Paris, they’re met by a cute guy at the airport who offers them a ride to their hotel. He introduces himself as Peter (Nicolaus Giraud) and of course he’s up to no good; he’s really the recruiter for a gang of human traffickers from Albania who meet naïve tourist girls at airports, give them rides and ultimately kidnap them from their hotels and sell them as sex slaves. When Kim doesn’t call him from Paris as he requested, Bryan calls her — and receives a live broadcast of the kidnapping of Amanda; realizing that Kim will inevitably also be taken, Bryan tells her to hide under a bed in an adjoining room and keep the phone connection open so he can hear the kidnappers’ voices and have a live record of the crime he can use to find and catch them. Once Kim is kidnapped, and Bryan has a recording he can play for his fellow ex-agents so they can analyze it, Bryan flies to Paris and the rest of the film shows him tracing his daughter’s kidnappers despite the opposition of his former colleague, French police official Jean-Claude (Olivier Raboutin), who’s retired from direct operations, now works a desk job and is so determined to get Bryan out of the country and off the case that we instantly suspect that he’s really in the pay of the bad guys nearly an hour before the film tells us so. In the course of the story Bryan kills 35 people — that’s an trivia poster’s count and that may include people like the original recruiter, Peter, who’s run over by a truck at the airport as Bryan is chasing him (though Bryan does save a Swedish tourist from Stockholm from meeting the same fate as Kim and Amanda) — and ultimately finds another prostitute wearing Kim’s jacket. It seems that as soon as the gang kidnaps the girls, they get them addicted to drugs to eliminate their ability to resist, and Bryan takes the girl to a sort of safe-house room, equipped with an IV line and other medical gear to withdraw her, so he can find out where she got the jacket and thereby, presumably, where Kim is.

Ultimately Bryan crashes a slave auction where Kim is the star piece of merchandise — and in the wickedest turn of wit in the script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, the slave auction is run with the same sort of supercilious pretension as a high-class art auction by Sotheby’s or Christie’s, complete with an unctuous host, St. Clair (Gérard Watkins), who speaks English with a perfect American accent and quietly and in measured tones explains that he doesn’t think about the morality of what he’s doing: to him, it’s all about the money. Ultimately Bryan rescues Kim from her eventual purchaser, a fat sheik who apparently was willing to pay (through an agent) half a million dollars for Kim just to have the pleasure of strangling her to death. A movie centered around how the world’s 0.001-percenters have constructed an ultra-secret lifestyle in which they can literally kill people just for transitory kicks could have been even more interesting and exciting than Taken, but Taken largely scores on sheer cheekiness and the unlikelihood of middle-aged and well-worn Liam Neeson taking on the model of action hero. Taken was directed by Pierre Morel, who way overdoes the gimmickry on the action sequences — I couldn’t help but think based on the films of his I’ve seen (including Angel-A and the marvelous, underrated Lucy) that Luc Besson could have directed it better — and yet it’s a haunting movie and changed Liam Neeson’s typecasting from intellectual biopic star to action hero — indeed, the film spawned two sequelae, in both of which Neeson appeared, Taken 2 ( synopsis: “In Istanbul, retired CIA operative Bryan Mills and his wife are taken hostage by the father of a kidnapper Mills killed while rescuing his daughter”) and Taken 3 (“Ex-government operative Bryan Mills is accused of a ruthless murder he never committed or witnessed. As he is tracked and pursued, Mills brings out his particular set of skills to find the true killer and clear his name”), both directed by someone with the weirdly appropriate name “Olivier Megaton”!