I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
So begins Taken, a no-holds-barred revenge movie that taps into two wells simultaneously: the lengths that any parent will go to in order to protect their children, and the knowledge we all have deep down inside that tells us we should be grateful that Liam Neeson is fighting on our side, rather than against it.
Taken boils down like this: Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent-turned-bodyguard who gets a frantic phone call from his teenaged daughter, Kim, who is visiting Paris. Unidentified men are breaking into her hotel room and have already abducted her friend. They will surely abduct her as well, and from there, do God only knows what to her.
Bryan let Kim go to Paris in the hopes that it would earn him brownie points with his ex-wife Lenore, with whom he clearly would like to reconcile. You get the feeling that she does, too, if only it weren’t for Bryan’s job, which still kind of requires him to do secret agent stuff even though he isn’t a secret agent anymore. It’s all a bit threadbare, to be honest, and overdoes the central driving point of the film: when you are a parent, you tell yourself you would do anything for your kids. Not everybody means it. But Bryan does, and to prove it, he takes on an entire Albanian human trafficking ring as he fights his way across Paris in a relentless pursuit of the guys who intend to put his daughter to work as a sex slave.
Taken is not high cinema, but so what? It is a deeply entertaining action tale that especially appealed to me as the father of a young girl myself. Luc Besson—who directed Leon the Professional, The Fifth Element and a bunch of other movies I quite like—did not direct this movie, but as its producer, you can see that his fingerprints are all over it. There is a griminess to this movie’s version of Paris that somehow does not speak ill of the city or of its people. It just sets it up as a cool foreign locale where it is somehow okay for an American badass to chase gangsters around and give them cases of high-speed lead poisoning. The action is stylish, the cinematography solid, and overall, it’s just a tight, tense flick that never lets up. But the biggest reason why Taken works is Liam Neeson.
In this movie, Neeson looks like an ordinary guy whose age is what makes him so dangerous. He has had the time to perfect the craft of killing bad guys. He has had time to raise a family. He has had the time to decide that if you mess with his daughter, and you do not let her go, he will find you, and he will kill you. When he utters those lines in that now-infamous phone call scene, you buy every last syllable of it. it’s not a catchphrase or some speech. It’s the movie’s moment of truth, a thesis statement delivered in a way that you have no choice but to believe.
As Taken progresses, Neeson’s character doesn’t progress so much as it unfolds in an extended discovery process. First we see what Bryan Mills can do…then we see what Bryan Mills will do. There comes a point when our hero goes places we would rather heroes not go, but in the context of the story, we understand it. And more importantly, we forgive it. Not because what Mills does is easily condoned, but because the movie sets up a context wherein it’s hard not to swallow its moral calculus hook, line, and sinker. I loved that the movie did that to me.
Taken came out in January 2009 and even though a lot of critics didn’t care for it, the movie has no small number of fans who, like me, had an awful lot of fun watching Neeson apply his formidable acting chops to an otherwise ordinary action/revenge thriller. The funny thing about this movie, though, and about Neeson’s subsequent action roles that followed Taken, is that Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident on March 18, as the buzz from Taken had not yet subsided. Suddenly, there was this groundswell of sympathy for Neeson, whose invulnerability on the screen transformed into a very real and very human ability to suffer. For a while, he took a bunch of dark roles, and I often wondered if the killer Neeson we were now seeing was his grief taken form in his work. I have no way of knowing. But I think about it when I return to this film, and it makes me believe it all the more. We can all grieve, no matter how strong we are. We all have a pressure point. And we will all react when someone or something hits it. That’s why we cheer when Liam makes that menacing phone call in the beginning of this movie. It’s him telling us that sometimes, our weakness is also our strength. Funny that a simple beat-’em-up would make what is for me, such a great point. But it did.