Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cinema 2008: “Taken,” with a grain of salt, is action hit

With filmmakers soon to release "Taken 2," here is my review of the original.

When will those foreign bad guys ever learn? You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't pull the mask off the Lone Ranger and you don't mess around with — Mills, Liam Neeson's ultra tough guy role in the 2008 film "Taken."

Mills is ex-CIA. He has retired at the top of his spy game to spend quality time with his teenage daughter Kim, a spoiled kid who lives with her vapid mom and mom's millionaire second husband in, where else, sunny California. Stepdaddy’s money can buy the teenager a pony on her 17th birthday but it hasn’t given her any horse sense.

When Kim and her blonde party doll of a girlfriend go to Paris for a four-star frolic, they manage to get kidnapped even before the jet lag wears off. That's when Mills begins to put to use his special "skill set" to get Kimmy back.

What is Neeson doing in this role? Could he be trying to grab market share for his own licensed killer franchise, like Daniel Craig and Matt Damon before him? The fight scenes in "Taken" certainly attempt to ape the highly accelerated style in the new Bond films and the Bourne trilogy. That style conveys greater realism than the more overtly choreographed fisticuffs of a previous era, as long as the scenes are not extended beyond belief.

But many of the fights and City of Light car chases in "Taken" are built on quick close-ups of the action edited into a fast-paced Hollywood inkblot that viewers are left to interpret. By contrast, "Bourne Identity," for example, did it right with wider angle, longer takes that actually put plenty of unblinking action on the screen. Nor does "Taken" give us much of a feel for the French capital and its famous sights and dangerous alleyways.

Still, as entertainment for action aficionados, "Taken" rarely falters. It is fun to watch Neeson's white knight, in black jeans and black leather, appear throughout the film with the immutability of the monolith in Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the inexorability of Edgar Poe's raven, making sure that scumbags who sell girls into sexual slavery, do it "nevermore."

Mills is the calm eye in the center of a brutal storm. He upshifts from a low-key, middle-aged father to a Terminator, just slightly less human than those famous Cyberdyne Systems cyborgs.

While those around him go into hysterics at the news of his daughter's kidnapping by sex slavers, Mills' training allows him to focus on saving his lil' Kim. Mills calls in favors and gets some intel. He learns he probably has a 96-hour window to retrieve his daughter or never hear from her again. That starts the clock ticking, a useful and well known device in such films. We understand Mills has no time to waste on such social amenities as "maim before kill." Besides, he is no shaolin. He goes after Kim alone, a rogue among rogues.

This is a movie where the audience cheers when the bad guys are dispatched with coldhearted vengeance. Nominally, the film spotlights the abuse of young women sold into prostitution. But there is no serious didactic here, it might bog down the beautiful brutality.

Mills manages to save an unknown girl and treat her addiction as long as she is useful to him. But her ultimate fate remains a mystery. Mills also tracks down his daughter's traveling companion, but I wouldn't bet a baguette that scriptwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen could focus long enough to have written a double rescue.

When Mills tortures a ringleader to extract information, he does not enjoy his task like some sick sadist. Still, his complete indifference and premeditated course of action seem to bespeak a single-minded sociopath.

The Hollywoodian hyperbole of a high stakes sex slave auction, where elite evil doers slurp expensive bubbly while bidding electronically on young girls on behalf of super-rich sheiks, is sophomoric.

In the final rescue scene director Pierre Morel, or his film editor, had insight enough to add a two-beat caesura after the ultimate violence and before Kim, relinquished by a lifeless pasha, begins consoling in daddy’s arms.

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