Saturday, February 7, 2009

"TAKEN" with a touch of Parker

I hadn’t seen any recent movies worth raving about for a while, in fact I still haven’t – but the Luc Besson produced “Taken” came damned close tonight.

I heard about ‘Taken’ several months ago and thought it might be worth a view on DVD as I like Liam Neeson who headlines the movie, plus the plot looked interesting. Also the backdrop for the movie intrigued me. I love [what I term] the amoral “International action thriller set in mainland Europe” sub-genre, with my favourites being as diverse as The Italian Job, Kelly’s Heroes, The Bourne Ultimatum, Ronin, The French Connection II, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Ripley’s Game and of course in my opinion two masterworks from Luc Besson - Nikita and Leon US re-title ‘The Professional’.

‘Taken’ fits this sub-genre well. ‘Taken’ is a French production directed by Pierre Morel and premiered in Paris twelve months ago. The English versions appeared on the big screen in September 2008 in the UK, while the film premiered at the end of last month in the US.

Its plot is very simple, but engaging – Bryan Mills [the Liam Neeson character], is a retired, divorced ex-CIA agent living in California. He has one [17 year old] daughter who he’s trying to make up to [after years of being away from home due to various overseas operations]. His daughter goes to Paris [France] with a girlfriend and ends up kidnapped by white slavers / woman smugglers. Neeson states via telephone very simply to the kidnappers that –

“If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.”

And that is the film in microcosm, so I viewed the trailer for which that line and telephone call set the stage. A couple of other things in my life were circulating that made me grab this film on DVD. Firstly I’ve been re-reading a great deal of Donald Westlake’s Richard Stark series. I noticed that a few people had considered the Liam Neeson character to have some traits of master thief ‘Parker’. The other issue is that my eldest daughter is also seventeen, and [in my opinion] unware of the risks that this world poses at its darkest edges. She’s not as streetwise as her old man so I thought it might be a good idea if she watch it almost as a precautionary tale. We’ve told her that airports, train terminals and anywhere designed for mass-transit are dangerous places where strange people often lurk – looking for victims, be they for mugging, or be they for something far worse. So DVD in hand, popcorn ready we despatched my younger two children upstairs to watch something more in line with their age group - Get Smart.

Popcorn bowls out and a cold beer in hand, my wife and I settled down with our eldest daughter to watch Liam Neeson extract revenge on some Euro-Trash baddies.

Firstly, the movie is wonderfully cathartic to watch the villains getting their butts kicked good and proper. The film is wickedly amoral as there’s even a torture scene, and a few innocents get hurt along the way; but in the context of the wider worry for Neeson’s daughter – you accept the actions that this ex-CIA agent has to deploy.

As for the question of Neeson’s character being like Richard Stark’s master thief Parker? Well not really. The only similarity is the dispassionate way in which both Parker and Neeson are workman-like in their methods of despatching their opponents. Though saying that, if you like the Parker books [and films], you will enjoy seeing Neeson deploying Parker’s tactics to restore order with not a single flinch of remorse or empathy to those who block his path.

In fact the whole film was highly enjoyable and made the heart pound as Neeson, like Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne fights his way from one set piece to another, never wavering or showing worry. He’s like a machine that has no off-switch, which I guess is a trait of Parker.

The one downside I felt was the manner in which East Europeans and Arabs again are painted as the bad guys. Neeson at one point resorts to torture [by electrocution] to extract information about his daughter’s whereabouts. In the broader context of the narrative, the torture is made morally acceptable which is worrying - ‘Extra-ordinary rendition’, ‘Ghost-Flights’ anyone? The surreal aspect is that ‘Taken’ is a French film and far more right-wing and reactionary than the US/UK production of ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ which actually shows how dangerous it is for a society to allow its covert agencies to deploy torture as a tool; no matter how desperate the situation.

The liberal part of my brain wondered if films, like many other parts of the mainstream media are working as instruments of propaganda in gently [and subliminally] influencing public opinion toward a targeted agenda. But then again I could be just getting more paranoid as I get older. The more I see around me – the more I read into what I see; and the view from my window is not pleasant.

Though The Times review ignores the political dimension but points out the issues of violence that pepper this film –

Neeson calculates that he has 96 hours tops to save his daughter before she is pumped full of heroin and rented out to construction-site navvies for the rest of her life. The neck-snapping urgency with which he chops through Albanian criminals is an astonishing spectacle. The graphic violence is filmed in quadraphonic stereo and unflinching close-up.

“You know we used to outsource this kind of thing to the Third World,” muses Neeson as he neatly wires up an Albanian thug to the national grid in a dingy basement. “I don’t know why. The power source is far more reliable over here.” It’s these tabloid one-liners that keep the pitch-black comedy alive. The body count is fabulously unhealthy. And the inevitable betrayal is a public scandal.

“Please apologise to your wife for me,” Neeson deadpans seconds after putting a bullet into the Chief of Police’s hapless partner to illustrate his disappointment over dinner. If Neeson wasn’t in such a dreadful hurry we might even enjoy the mindless cruelty.

The Guardian found a different message embedded in Taken’s narrative –

But there's more to this film than just action. At the start, something about it – something good, that is – seemed rather familiar. Neeson plays a former secret service warrior who has retired to be near his daughter. The daughter lives with Neeson's horrible, snobby ex, played by Famke Janssen, an ex-Bond girl who seems to be thriving as she approaches middle age (check her out as Ben Kingsley's constantly smoking wife in The Wackness.)

Anyway, Janssen has married a rich ponce, and Neeson is being squeezed out of his daughter's life, and it's heartbreaking. The way he stoops, his walk, and the way he uses his eyes is just superb. He's given up being a hero, and now he's being humiliated; the early scenes, which set this all up, are a bit manipulative. But it just about works. And then – bang! The daughter is kidnapped. Neeson takes control. Suddenly, he's a mad driver, a killing machine, and a detective. His ex-wife's rich ponce of a husband is nowhere. Ha!

The film is really made special by the extraordinary performance by Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills. Neeson in my opinion is perfectly cast for the role, and he stated -

"I'm always motivated by script. That's my sole criterion and it's either something that gets under my skin or it doesn't, to be honest. And with this script I just loved the action of it. I loved the fact that I was being asked to do it. I was 54 years of age then and I thought in a few years' time I'm never going to be asked to do this sort of stuff again. But then, even though it's never been a fantasy of mine to play an action hero, one gets a real kick out of shooting real movie baddies and driving like a racing car driver."

The film also worked in highlighting to my daughter that talking to strangers in strange cities [or imparting personal information] no matter how charming the stranger maybe, can lead to danger. Normally my wife and kids think that as I read so many crime novels, I live in a state of paranoid delusion about human kind. But I also read a great deal of non-fiction and have seen first hand the signs that there is terrible darkness within the human condition. Despite some of the later sections of ‘Taken’ getting more outlandish, both my daughter and wife realised the plausibility of the danger that Neeson’s daughter put herself into.

In fact I found a website that views ‘Taken’ as a real-life warning about the risks I explained to my daughter -

The movie touched also a warm matter : human trafficking : it’s kidnapping girls and forced them to be sex-slave and prostitute. Actually, it’s the third illegal trade which paid most after drugs and weapons ($10billion per year). As one of the trafficker says in the movie: “It’s not personal, it’s just trade”, those people don’t have any scruple to use other people as an object, a stock to sell. They are well organized (corruption, money laundry, mafia) it takes years to crack their system down. And even if one of those traffic is dismantled, ten groups, worst than those before is raised. Over 2 million people are trafficked per year. Their victims are young girls and children. Internet is one of their means to attract them. And there are some who kidnap children too. The 96 hours mentioned in the movie is also true : once you’re out of the country you were kidnapped, it’s almost impossible to find you. Their network extend all over the world : Europe, US, Mexico, Asia, Africa, everywhere. Unfortunately, if you travel alone, your missing may be not declare only after the 96 hours.

So after the film finished, we all agreed that with a few reservations [the ones that ruffled my liberal sensibilities]; ‘Taken’ was on the whole an excellent film.

As we watched the credits unspool, my daughter asked what I would do if she were kidnapped in a similar situation. I told her that firstly she wouldn’t be as naive as Neeson’s daughter; and that if I had to mobilise my own resources and contacts; I would have taken off my gloves unlike Neeson. In fact I would be far less restrained than Neeson. My daughter laughed and said ‘Dad, you’re the best’. My wife laughed also, but a little more nervously. She knows some of the people I know, and she also knows exactly what I am capable of, should the cards ever fall in the wrong order.

If you need a jerk of cathartic and amoral action ‘Taken’ is the movie to watch this month; but remember that we can all be pushed to the edge; but some of us push back, and in some cases that push can be vicious.


  1. Ali, this is an excellent review, and I really enjoyed the amoral slicing and dicing of the criminals. I have to agree, if I were ever on a mission to save a loved one, I'd be even more ruthless, it's the only way when time is short.

  2. Liam's colleage in Ireland in the 70s was a victim of abuse helped at our shelter in Dubai in 2007.

    Can someone have Liam contact us please.