Movie Review: Taken
By Matthew Huntley
February 9, 2009
Taken puts a fresh angle on the traditional kidnapping premise by allowing its hero to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. So often in movies about abduction, the protagonist panics and remains unsure of what to do next. Not Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson). This guy knows exactly what he's doing and views everyone around him as an amateur. And, compared to Bryan, they are. He's a former CIA operative who goes to Paris to save his daughter, who's been taken by a band of sex traffickers. Usually, the CIA is commissioned to find other people's missing children, but what happens when it's one of their own?
You'd think the refreshing plot would allow the movie to become an original, taut thriller, but that's not the case. If the movie's dialogue and acting were taken half as seriously as its production values, which are quite good, we'd really have something here, but the slick stunts and combat scenes aren't enough to compensate for the straightforward directing and questionable performances.
In the movie, Bryan has just retired from the CIA and moved to Los Angeles to be closer to his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace). He does not get along with his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), but he's doing his best to make up for lost time. Just when he starts trying harder, Kim asks his permission to spend the summer in Paris with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy).
When Kim and Amanda arrive, they flirt with a Frenchman and share a taxi. It turns out the young man works for a group of Albanian criminals who run a prostitution ring and sell women to the highest bidders. Kim happens to be on the phone with her father when the men break into her apartment. Bryan is able to give her explicit instructions on how to handle the situation and I liked how Bryan knew she was going to be kidnapped before it actually happens. In that sense, the movie doesn't beat around the bush. He tells Kim to leave her phone on and yell out her abductor's height and hair color - anything so he can start putting the pieces together to save her. When the leader picks up the phone, Bryan can hear him breathing on the other end and tells him he will find him and kill him. The kidnapper replies, "Good luck."
The process by which Bryan hunts down the criminals is kind of neat and entertaining. We witness his systematic, no-nonsense approach and become convinced he really is an expert when it comes to this sort of thing. The clues and information he uses in order to reconstruct the kidnapping are believable. I also liked the way Bryan confronts the bad guys - he's a certifiable bada*s who seems to have been inspired by Daniel Craig's version of James Bond. It's too bad the movie is rated PG-13 because I think a hard R could have made the violence even more effective.
With that said, there wasn't enough in Pierre Morel's movie I felt I hadn't already seen in other movies or that really surprised me. The action scenes are well-staged and some of the stunt work is on the cusp of breathtaking, especially the scenes when characters are hanging off ledges or jumping off bridges, but these moments are isolated in an otherwise flawed screenplay. There's a terrific-looking sequence when Liam Neeson (or a stunt man who looks a lot like Liam Neeson) moves along the edge of an apartment building. There's also a great chase scene outside the Paris Airport that ends badly for one man.
Part of the problem is the simplified dialogue, which exists merely as exposition. It sounds like an English translation of a foreign movie - extremely literal and in service only to the plot. No time is taken out to develop the characters, which made the action less purposeful.
Liam Neeson has a strong screen presence and makes for a convincing spy, but his character is underwritten and sort of one-note. We don't know much about Bryan except for the basics. Maggie Grace, who's 25-years-old in real life, plays a 17-year-old in the movie, but her performance turns into a liability. The way she jumps around, smiles and acts giddy was too transparent. The filmmakers might have been better off casting a real 17-year-old for authenticity.
Save for the premise of a father taking charge and calling the shots on his daughter's own kidnapping, Taken doesn't offer much beyond a few glossy action scenes. Morel is obviously a big fan of the genre, and his adoration seeps through with some impressive shots, but even those feel derivative, perhaps inevitably, of the James Bond and Bourne series. Morel shows promise, though, and hopefully with his next film, the director will find a stronger, more distinguished voice, along with a screenplay that takes its intriguing premise and goes the distance with it.