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Here's what I thought of when Taken was over: Fred Zinneman's 1973 adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's thriller, The Day of the Jackal. In that film, the killer played by Edward Fox goes to quietly Wagnerian lengths to acquire his kit, from forged papers to explosive bullets. On the way to the big event — the assassination of the French President — the Jackal kills about three people (that I can think of offhand, anyway), and then only to ease his progress toward the garret perch where the final action is achieved within minutes. The Day of the Jackal is all setup. Painstakingly slow, it screws up a colossal pressure of suspense.
Someone who works with legal documents might say that Pierre Morel's Taken incorporates Jackal by reference. Its killer, Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), is a peaceable fellow who likes to think of himself as a "preventer," but the fact that he is a retired CIA operative is all we need to know about his access to guns and gadgets. We see him actually ask someone to arrange a flight on a private plane from Los Angeles to Paris, but for the most part Bryan pulls things out of his pocket when he needs them. This makes for great fun, especially since there is no need to create suspense. Byran's daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), has been kidnapped by some very bad apples, an offense that stings Bryan into omnicompetent activity.
That's great fun, too, because at the beginning of the film Bryan is something of a sad sack. He has retired in order to try to forge a relationship with Kim, whom he unavoidably neglected during his Company days — and her childhood. Now seventeen, Kim loves her Dad, but she's not the deepest well at the oasis, and she's easily dazzled by her stepfather's largesse, which rather outclasses any birthday presents that Bryan can purchase. Kim's mother, Lenore (Famke Janssen), wears the ashes of her love for Bryan like kohl eyeliner: you can that her anger at his absence was fueled by a conviction that he was worth missing. When Kim is invited to join a friend on a junket to Paris, Bryan's disapproval makes him look hopelessly inept as a loving parent. He's protective at exactly the wrong time — or so he's made to look.
Anyone who has been to the movies even once before, however, will know that Bryan is right to disapprove of Kim's trip, especially when it turns out to be not to be a jaunt to the Louvre (as naughty Kim claims) but more of a groupie thing, following the band U2 on a European tour. Bryan's experiences on a bodyguard gig for a rising pop sensation, during the film's preliminaries in Los Angeles, illustrate his very worldly wisdom. But our dad knows that Lenore is right when she tells him that he can forget about connecting with his daughter if he refuses to consent to her travel plans (required for her to leave the country, apparently, as a minor). He gives her a phone and detailed instructions about calling when she lands — instructions that she forgets, being only 17. Happily, she does think to call — at what turns out to be the last possible moment.
Kim's abductors do not listen when Bryan advises them that he's prepared to come after them. "Good luck," says the voice at the other end of the phone — and the movie takes off. From the moment Bryan arrives in Paris, Taken begins breaking records for efficiency. With a little help — some of it granted under duress — from an old pal in the French police department (Olivier Rabourdin), Bryan zeroes in on the nasties who plan to auction Kim's virginity to a nest of unsavory millionaires. The virginity angle is a good thing, too, because it postpones her fate long enough for her father to find her and intervene. Without it, Kim would be drugged into becoming a Working Girl. If you have any doubt that Bryan will find her and intervene, you must think that the director and his producer, Luc Besson, are too French to make a rip-roaring Hollywood action flick.
Taken is a success, rather than an exploitation, because Mr Neeson beautifully bridges the two Bryans — the wannabe Dad left in the dust by his ex's new husband, and the lethal vigilante who does not threaten things that he cannot make happen. There is nothing cold or affectless about Bryan on the move; you can tell that he's worried sick about being too late to save Kim. But you can also see that his professionalism cuts through his anxiety. Bryan is exactly the Dad that any girl in trouble would want to have, and anyone in the audience who isn't rooting for him probably needs therapy. Mr Neeson is also just the right actor to play an action figure whose brawn is backed up by brains. In contrast to the perhaps unavoidably formulaic automotive antics, Bryan's skills as a hand-to-hand fighter are briskissimo. It's possible that young guys who like to watch other guys duke it out may feel cheated by Mr Morel's express production, but for parents in the audience the ordeal cannot be over too soon. Taken doesn't last a minute more than it ought to. (February 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press