In my review of Unknown 18 months ago, I spoke about how actors can often have a second, very different career after their initial fame or recognition has passed. In addition to the examples I listed in that review, along with all of John Travolta's comebacks, we can now add Liam Neeson to the list of actors whose later career is taking a very different shape to the roles which made him famous.
Taken is the result of two growing trends in filmmaking: older protagonists as a reaction to a market saturated with youth, and weighty actors downsizing into trashy B-movies. Even considering how clichéd the premise is, it should be fun to see the star of Schindler's List and Michael Collins run around beating up men half his age. But what starts as a fun if overly familiar thriller eventually descends into something a lot more nasty, so that the end result is just plain and simple rubbish.
The film starts fine enough, with a number of scenes which set up our main characters and make them likeable. The characters are all painted in very broad strokes, with the likeability coming from the screen presence of the actors rather than the lines they are delivering. The setup is clichéd and contrived, revolving around a retired special agent who has family problems, and whose friends are also retired agents who moonlight at bodyguards. But Liam Neeson and Famke Janssen both have enough screen presence to make us feel engaged, if not impressed.
The other big asset of Taken is its pacing. It is paced as a B-movie should be, clocking in at just under 90 minutes and moving from scene to scene like it is trying to get a job done. The film is produced by Luc Besson, and whatever else may be true of him, he does not make films that hang around unnecessarily. The action, up to the hour mark at least, hits all the beats that it needs to and cutting from scene to scene at just the right time. Pierre Morel compliments Besson very well, bringing a Hollywood sensibility without too much of the accompanying excess.
As efficient as Taken is, however, it is also deeply derivative. I've spoken in the past about the difference between a cliché and a convention, the key being that if we are engrossed enough in the story or the action, then the more well-worn elements are less likely to bother us. Considering how fast-paced and lean Taken is, you'd expect these familiar touches to be easy to ignore or gloss over, but they are often so blatantly obvious that this becomes impossible.
For starters, the camerawork is incredibly sub-Bourne, relying on very clumsy hand-held work and needless choppy editing during the car chases. Like many filmmakers who have aped the style of the Bourne series, Morel seems to understand how to achieve the effect but doesn't understand what the effect is for. Paul Greengrass used handheld camerawork to bring a realistic, documentarian feel to the Bourne films; the action was directed in such a way that it felt spontaneous and visceral. With Taken, there is so much artifice in the set-up and plot mechanics that this technique doesn't work, resulting in nothing more than visual incoherence.
While many B-movies recycle plots from films at or below their station, this film pinches plot points from more upmarket films, perhaps in a bid to give itself mainstream credibility. The scene where Neeson uses a photo booth to enlarge a photo of the kidnapper's face is a shameless rip-off of Blade Runner, recreating the shot with none of the intrigue or patience. The interpreter who appears very briefly is a straight lift from the Sherlock Holmes story 'The Greek Interpreter', being a character who is asked to interpret without knowing where he is, what he is doing or why. The death scene involving the bulldozer is essentially a reworking of the ridiculous surfboard death in Lethal Weapon 2, and the recurring mention of "good luck" is a clunking and ineffective nod to The Great Escape.
Then we come to the film's casual racism, evident in its characterisation of Europeans. Despite its modern camerawork and aesthetic, it is a very old-fashioned, retrograde thriller in which anyone who doesn't come from America is simply evil. The film focuses a lot of its energy on the Albanians, stereotyping them as vicious human traffickers with an overlord so silly, he could have come straight from a Tintin comic. But the French are also slandered, with the main French character being cowardly, corrupt and never more than a few yards from either wine or a baguette.
You might make the point at this juncture that this kind of stereotyping simply comes with the territory. B-movies have often depicted American protagonists fighting other races under the banner of entertainment, a trend which has carried over to the mainstream via Raiders of the Lost Ark. The difference, however, is that Raiders doesn't play the Nazis' race for laughs: Indiana Jones could be punching hundreds of bad Americans out and it would still be awesome. Taken actively relies on the foreign nature of its bad guys, using racial stereotypes to reinforce its protagonist in the absence of any more developed story or characterisations.
Up to the hour mark, what we have is a stupid, derivative and racist but efficiently made action thriller. The action is very paint-by-numbers, and the camerawork is poor, but there's enough humour and silliness to keep us entertained. The enjoyment we get from Neeson and the slick execution is in such abundance that the film is a borderline guilty pleasure. And then we come to the torture scene, after which the film takes a nose dive and never recovers.
There has been an awful lot of press recently about the depiction of torture in films, particularly in regard to Zero Dark Thirty and whether it condones or condemns the use of torture. In the case of Taken, there can be no such debates: the film blatantly condones torture as a means of getting information, and then throws in a touch of sadism by having our hero leave the victim to slowly fry. This scene has none of the humour of the torture scene in Casino Royale, or even Reservoir Dogs: it leaves a really nasty taste in the mouth and goes somewhere to alienating our protagonist.
After this scene, the sleazier parts of Taken start to bother us more. The film shoots itself in the foot in this regard, cranking up both the body count and the scenes of scantily-clad women. We're meant to feel like the stakes are being raised, but all that's different is that we now deeply dislike Neeson's character. He has gone from someone doing what he must to a vengeful and vindictive murderer, and there is no Get Carter-style twist to mitigate just how reprehensible he's being.
The film's attempts to up the ante with the action also betray even more derivative aspects. Having put up with certain scenes or character traits up to this point, we know begin to pick up on shots or compositions that the film recycles from better genre movies. The Albanians' derivative deaths range from having their heads slammed in car doors (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) to being hit in the head repeatedly with a fire extinguisher (Irreversible). The scene of the different mobsters bidding on the girls feels like the underground executive scene in Mulholland Drive, but without any of the intelligence, the intrigue or the mystery. Having already lost its audience, the film proves that it doesn't have an original bone in its body, being in every way, shape or form the product of a hack.
Taken is a really poor action film that fails to fulfil on what little potential it possessed. While its pacing is laudable and its performances are initially likeable, all the problems which bubble under the surface at the start are thrust wide into the open after the torture scene, after which it has nowhere to go. Neeson give it his all, but there is a bittersweetness here too, considering the direction this film has led him down in his later career. In short, it's awful - and it has an awful lot to answer for.