Liam Neeson tries to be reasonable.
Genre films are beginning to creep back into theaters after the big parade of Oscar-contenders—praise be to God—and one of them, a little actioner called Taken, is now tops at the box-office and deserves a quick hosanna.
(Not that the Oscar nominees aren’t an exciting topic too. Oh golly no. I’ve been meaning to write all about them and somehow just haven’t gotten around to it. After all, what could be more riveting than making a case for which heart-tugging spectacle should win Best Picture, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Slumdog Millionaire? Or wondering whether Meryl Streep even has room in her bathroom for another Oscar? Stars all keep their awards in their bathrooms, see, to show how joshy and down-to-earth they are! It’s fascinating!)
Taken is a short, punchy B-movie, countering the ever-longer and more brooding big-budget action spectacles we’ve been seeing for a while now (the Bournes, the Bonds, the Batmans).
Luc Besson, best known for directing La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and The Fifth Element, is producer and co-screenwriter here (with frequent collaborator Robert Mark Kamen), and through his company Europacorp he’s grinding out consistently lively B-action fare like the Transporter series, assorted Jett Li movies, etc. Besson and director Pierre Morel last gave us the eye-popper 2004 action-fan-fave District B13.
Their new one, Taken, is an old-fashioned vigilante film about a father rescuing his daughter from sex slavers who will, naturally, die in droves. The formula is freshened up with some unlikely casting: Liam Neeson as the lethal dad. Neeson is one of those stodgy respected actors, Irish, obviously, and with all sorts of classic stage roles and prestige pictures to his credit. He’s an odd fit for the part of an ex-CIA American with an impressive homicidal skill-set who’s given it all up in order to repair his relationship with his teenage daughter (Maggie Grace).
But it works pretty well. Neeson is sad-faced and lumbering and low-wattage, which is great for the early scenes when he goes through the ritual everyday-life humiliations that will key us all up to watch him do maximum damage later. He lives in a crap apartment in L.A., and he’s scorned by his gratuitously mean ex-wife (Famke Janssen, who really ought to think about whether she needs the money this bad) and her rich buffoon of a second husband (Xander Berkeley).
Sad Dad also has to take stupid jobs to get by, like guarding a Britney-esque pop singer at a concert where someone with a sensitive ear for music is sure to want her dead. In his free time, he sits around at home staring at photos of his daughter.
Some action fans will wonder if we needed to see quite so much corny daughter-love and cringy dad-humiliation before getting to the action. It IS a little weird, the lingering thoroughness of the set-up. But it makes sense in the long run. They’re piling it on in the old-melodrama style, so that when the daughter finally gets abducted while on a trip to Paris, by evil Albanians yet, the violent payback can be unleashed with a whoosh. When I saw it, you could hear the whole audience settle tensely in their seats, as if to say, “Okay, NOW it’s on.”
Because Neeson is big and slow-looking—in certain shots he looks like Frankenstein’s monster’s handsome brother—there’s a real pleasure in seeing him break somebody’s face swiftly and efficiently. He can run, too, with a sort of speeding-train heftiness. And he looks invariably stoic, with a nice middle-aged melancholy in his creased face. He’s even reasonable a lot of the time. If they’d just give his daughter back, everybody could walk away. But they won’t. And this begins to irritate him. At one point, he shoots somebody who’s pleading, “Wait, we can nego—!”
It was great to be back in the atmosphere of intense audience involvement after seeing so many films viewed in the dutiful stupor produced by “quality” cinema. There’s a scene in Taken when Neeson gets jumped, and we all groaned “Ohhhh!!” in unison. If there had been time to warn him, someone probably would’ve shouted, “Look behind you!”
Of course, this kind of audience identification flushes out some unpleasant emotions as well. I was in an urban downtown theater that’s going to seed, and there were some of the usual fringe types there, exuding vague menace. These are often middle-aged men who look broke and on the edge, and each one sits alone in simmering silence. Occasionally one will boil over and yell something at the screen. This time around, it was, “Slap her!”, regarding Famke Janssen’s harpy ex-wife character.
There can be no question that movies like this are built to give an adrenaline rush that’s stoked, in part, by bitter resentments, crude old prejudices, and weird lusts. All that daughter-love, for example, devolves into some very peculiar scenes like the one when the girl’s virginity is being auctioned off to zillionaire creeps in glass booths, and her dad winds up putting in a bid himself. In order to save her, of course. But yeesh!
(This calls to mind aspects of Luc Besson’s earlier work, like, for example, The Professional, which focuses on disturbingly beautiful twelve-year-old Natalie Portman, dressed and acting like she’s twenty-five. Besson has her telling baggy-eyed old hitman Jean Reno that she has very strong feelings for him in her, uh, lower-stomach area. One suspects Besson’s got issues.)
In short, any sensitivity to aggressive misogyny and racial stereotyping—which are long-standing components of the action film, as well as most of the artworks of Western Civilization, and are more or less the price to be paid for enjoying them—should be checked at the theater door or untold suffering will result.
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