"Taken", the newest film from producer Luc Besson ("The Professional", "The Transporter", "2", "3"), is a better film than it may have a right to be.
Besson and director Pierre Morel (who previously brought us "District B13" which Besson also wrote and produced) seem to have a fascination with over the top action and have tried to create a more believable story this time around. The more believable the story, the more frightening the action. The more frightening the action, the more the audience will be on the edge of their seats. To a certain degree, they have succeeded. The story still has all the hallmarks of a really trashy pulp fiction novel, but because they have provided so much detail, you start to believe this type of story could actually happen. When you start to think this story could happen, you have to give Besson and Morel a lot of credit for the amount of detail and the attention to detail they have provided.
But a lot of credit for the success of this film lies in star Liam Neeson. His natural gravitas adds an air of authenticity to the character, making him believable and interesting and taking the film up a notch or two.
Divorced dad Bryan Mills (Neeson) has retired from his job and moved to LA to be closer to his eighteen year old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace, TV's "Lost"). Bryan's ex (Famke Jannsen, "GoldenEye") has remarried and they now live in a large home in a fancy neighborhood. On the occasion of Kim's birthday, Bryan finally buys the Karaoke machine he has been debating about for a while and arrives to deliver it to his daughter. His ex-wife is incredulous, but Kim seems to love it. Bryan knows she wants to be a singer, so it seems like the perfect goft. Then, her step-dad arrives with a pony. Disgusted, Bryan leaves to take a freelance job, Bryan's past is a little murky, but her tells his daughter he used to be a 'preventer', working to keep bad things from happening. A couple of buddies have a job protecting a Britney-like pop star during her concert. Bryan says yes because he needs the money, but everyone soon realizes the job is more dangerous than anticipated. Meeting with his daughter for lunch, he is surprised to find the ex joining them. Kim wants to go to Paris for the summer with her BFF Amanda. They are going to study and visit the museums and learn a lot in the City of Lights. But she needs the signature of both parents. Bryan, who has dealt with problems throughout the world, says 'No'. Its too dangerous for two young ladies to travel alone. Sooner than you can say 'passport', he has given into pressure and agrees, but only if Kim calls him immediately upon their arrival and once a day. Almost as soon as they arrive in Paris, Kim and Amanda are kidnapped. But Kim manages to get into a bedroom and call her father. He gives her very precise instructions and then sets about making arrangements to bring them back. When he arrives in Paris, he quickly gets to work trying to relocate Kim and Amanda and won't let any of the bad guys get in his way.
The film has a fairly lengthy set-up and it may seem a little unnecessary at first. You go to a Luc Besson film to see some people get their behind whooped. You want Neeson to get to France as soon as possible and start using blood to write 'REVENGE' on the streets of Paris. But the story has to be set into gear and we have to see the relationship between Bryan and Kim (she is Daddy's Little Girl, after all) and become familiar with all of these things before the story moves to Paris.
As we watch Bryan deal with his new life, we get the sense there is something burbling beneath the surface of this seemingly calm man. Something he is trying very hard to maintain, to keep his relationship with his daughter alive. Maybe he is trying to make up for lost time. Either way, everything he does seems to be for or about his daughter, the most important person in his life.
And Bryan seems to be fairly inadequate in the domestic life department. Everything he does and has can not compare to his ex-wife, Lenore and her husband, Stuart (Xander Berkeley). They live in a better house, give better gifts, say 'yes' to trips to Europe. Bryan can't compete and feels inadequate on an hourly basis.
It is a testament to Neeson's skill that he manages to create an atmosphere of longing and regret around Bryan. Neeson is a big man, tall and imposing and he makes his character's frustrations visible and palpable. We watch as Bryan visits an electronics store again, to look at the owner's manual for a Karaoke machine for Kim's birthday. Okay, he'll buy it. When he arrives at the party, he wants to give the gift to his daughter, but he almost gets in a fight with his ex-wife when she insists he go to the 'adult' party. Kim runs up and is very happy to get the gift, but this happiness is overshadowed when the pony arrives at her step-dad's hand. His face breaks into a frown as his daughter runs away to the new pony, forgetting the karaoke set he has been contemplating for months.
When his daughter and ex-wife come to him to get his permission for the trip to Europe, his worldly experience, his job as a 'preventer', cause him to say 'no'. But he thinks about it. This is one of the things he can do that would overshadow his ex-wife and her new husband, so he agrees, based on certain conditions.
As soon as Kim and Amanda arrive in Paris, they are immediately spotted and targeted. As soon as they get to the apartment, Kim realizes the people who own it are not there and has a bit of a pause. She has lied to her dad. Unwittingly, but even so. And this makes her feel guilty about the other lies she has told to her dad. Then, as Kim talks to Bryan, the bad guys break in and take Amanda. Kim sees all of this and starts to tell her dad, who gives her very specific instructions.
As soon as Kim is taken, Bryan begins to make preparations and arrives in Paris. He goes to the apartment and finds the phone he gave Kim. He finds a camera and sees a picture they took at the airport. He zooms in and spots the reflection of the photographer, leading him back to the airport.
Each step Bryan makes takes him closer to his abducted daughter and her friend, and deeper into a terrifying underworld.
Because Neeson treats everything his character does so seriously, we begin to believe what he is doing could actually happen. He makes short work of finding the group of men who probably abducted his little angel. And he makes even quicker work of dispatching them. Normally, this is the type of behavior a character like James Bond or a superhero would be able to do. Since Bryan is supposed to be more real than that, it is a bit incredulous to expect that he is able to navigate all of this foreign territory so well. But then again, he was a "Preventer". That enigmatic label allows for a lot of license, giving his character a lot of leeway. In other words, we believe a lot more of what he does than we should.
"Taken" is less successful in some other elements. For instance, never once did I believe Maggie Grace was under 18 years old, like her character Kim. She certainly tries to act the part, but the filmmakers lay it on a bit thick and try too hard to make her seem young. When she is given a pony at her birthday party, she runs towards the gift, screaming and yelling. Come on. An eighteen year old really wants a pony? When Bryan starts tracking his daughter down, he starts to peel the layers of a larger organization away, doing anything he can to get to his daughter. He seems to have little trouble doing this and the film would probably be thirty minutes long if there weren't so many layers. And so many people involved. It seems a bit convoluted and strains the credibility of the story.
But "Taken" has a lot going for it. And the star, always a dependable actor, doesn't disappoint. This is a type of film not commonly associated with Neeson, so it is nice to see him take on a new genre. Hopefully, this won't be the last time we see him kick some ass.