Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen have been writing ninety minute and change action movies for about seven years. It’s the only thing Kamen–who at one time was a Hollywood action screenwriter–is known for these days. Besson’s written a lot more of these mindless action feasts on his own and I don’t think it ever occurred to me one of them might some day turn out good. I didn’t even know the duo was behind Taken (Besson also produces). I just thought Liam Neeson’s career as a leading man had gotten too tenuous. But maybe only a leading man on the outs could make Taken, because even though it’s good, it’s still a subplot-free, ninety minute action movie. There’s no character development, nor the pretense it would have any part in such a narrative.
Taken‘s story is simple–Neeson’s an action guy (in this case a former CIA operative) who’s daughter gets kidnapped in Paris. He goes to get her back. He beats up a lot of people. Every frame of film is utilized towards that story–even tangential sequences reveal themselves to be part of the main plot. The first act of the film, which runs a half hour (lengthy for a ninety minute movie), is actually rather boring.
There’s a lot of (as it turns out) necessary setting and character stuff; these quieter moments are where Taken is chubby and off-point. Without them, however, the movie would only run an hour, which means it’d never get a theatrical release in the United States. Also, the viewer wouldn’t get to find out Maggie Grace is fine (nothing more) playing a teenager at twenty-five. He or she also wouldn’t get to suffer through Famke Janssen’s latest attempt at essaying a harpy. She fails once again, no surprise.
But immediately–with the kidnapping scene–Taken becomes captivating. It’s cheap and manipulative and it works. It’s short enough not to outstay its welcome and its occasional incredulousness can’t surmount Neeson’s fine performance.
Neeson makes Taken seem like it isn’t a disposable action movie. As goofy as the film gets in its scenes (not the action ones, the buddy scenes at the beginning), Neeson always makes them work. The whole movie depends on him and he doesn’t fail it.
Taken is very obviously not a mainstream American action movie, simply because of the plot’s clearness. The bad guys are not techo-terrorists, they’re just human traffickers. As the film revealed that plot point, I wondered if Taken was going to inform on that situation (on average, American men laugh when told of human trafficking; American soldiers in Iraq frequent victims of human trafficking), but it does not. Taken doesn’t really have room to educate, doesn’t have room to linger. It slices quickly and directly, just like Neeson’s character.
Morel’s direction is similarly efficient. The fight scenes are well-cut (especially given how tall Neeson is compared to his co-stars) and Taken–thanks to the combination of acting, directing and editing–never feels as though it’s trying to hide Neeson not actually being a trained martial artist. There’s also no sped up film, which is a pleasant surprise.
Taken succeeds on a higher level than it should because Besson and Kamen have constructed it to be self-evident. Just as there aren’t any subplots, there aren’t any themes or metaphors. It’s an action movie and a good one.
Directed by Pierre Morel; written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen; director of photography, Michel Abramowicz; edited by Frédéric Thoraval; music by Nathaniel Mechaly; production designer, Hugues Tissandier; produced by Besson, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam and India Osborne; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Liam Neeson (Bryan), Maggie Grace (Kim), Famke Janssen (Lenore), Xander Berkeley (Stuart), Katie Cassidy (Amanda), Olivier Rabourdin (Jean Claude), Leland Orser (Sam), Jon Gries (Casey), David Warshofsky (Bernie), Holly Valance (Diva), Nathan Rippy (Victor), Camille Japy (Isabelle), Nicolas Giraud (Peter) and Gérard Watkins (Saint Clair).