A weird moviegoing moment: Before seeing Taken, the story of a guy who vows to hunt down the people who kidnapped his daughter, there was a preview for 12 Rounds, an upcoming John Cena picture about a guy who vows to hunt down the people who kidnapped his wife. There's a moment in the trailer where Cena yells into the phone, "I'm doing to hunt you down and kill you." I remembered a scene from the trailer for Taken in which star Liam Neeson yells into the phone, "I will find you and I will kill you." It was almost like seeing the preview for the movie I was about to see. Of course, neither film is the first to tell some variation of this story or use some variation of that line. (Ransom did it particularly well.) I obviously haven't seen 12 Rounds yet, but I can say that Taken is perhaps the trashiest movie ever to haul out this formulaic plot.
The hero is Bryan Mills, a former government spy who quit his job and moved to L.A. in order to re-establish a relationship with teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), much to the consternation of ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). For extra cash, he gets a job as the bodyguard to a pop star. We know he is skilled at his job when a knife-wielding psycho tries to slash the singer for no apparent reason other than to provide us with the expository knowledge that Bryan can fight. For a second, I thought I was watching a sequel to The Bodyguard.
Against his better judgment, he agrees to let Kim travel to Paris with her best friend. Within just a few hours of arriving - and sharing a cab with a handsome stranger - shadowy men break into their apartment and kidnap the girls. This takes place abruptly, in the middle of what starts off as a tender father/daughter phone conversation. Bryan uses all his black op skills to track Kim down, only to discover that the abductors are part of a sexual traffic ring; they nab young women and sell them into sexual slavery.
I remember a term from my college literature courses: Deus ex machina. For those who don't know, it means "God in the machine" and is described by Merriam-Webster as "a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insolvable difficulty." Many movies employ the Deus ex machina but Taken is nothing but them. As he inches his way closer to the bad guys, Bryan is blessed with the most extraordinary run of luck imaginable. For example, when he busts into a makeshift brothel, he just happens to stumble upon a girl in possession of Kim's distinctly designed jacket. And when he tries to figure out who the cab-sharing stranger is, there just happens to be a reflection of him in a picture taken with her cell phone. You can see a lot of this stuff coming a mile away because it's all been done before, in better movies.
At times, the story is almost laughable, because Bryan always manages to find what he needs, when he needs it. Other times, he is able to do almost miraculous things, like the moment where he walks into a room full of people and gets the exact person to say the exact words necessary to prove that person's guilt. Perhaps the most ridiculous scene of all finds Bryan shooting an innocent woman, simply to make a point about how serious he is. Seems to me that a more sensible thing to do would be to shoot the guy he's actually angry at.
This is a very bad movie, but unfortunately, it sinks lower the longer it goes on. Roger Ebert has an old saying: It's not what a movie is about, but how it is about it. What he means is that a film can address any subject, no matter how sordid or controversial, so long as it does so in the proper spirit. I have no doubt that a good movie could be made about sex trafficking. Taken is not it, though. It approaches the subject in precisely the wrong spirit by trying to marry a real-life tragedy with absurdly over-the-top action sequences.
For my money, the big finale is a complete cop-out. Now, this will probably be a minor spoiler - although it's nothing you couldn't already guess anyway - but the story tries to have its cake and eat it too. Throughout the film, Bryan finds (and often rescues) other victims of the slave ring. The young women he finds have been beaten badly, are hopped up on drugs, and have clearly experienced a variety of sexual abuses. However, when he finally finds Kim, she is positively luminous. No bruises, no drugs forcibly injected into her, and still just as chaste as she is in the beginning. Clearly, a movie that really wanted to say something about human sex trafficking would acknowledge the larger truth - that any young female unlucky enough to be abducted would likely not be kept in pristine condition for long, even if they were trying to use her sexual purity as a selling point. In other words, Taken pretends to be hard-hitting, yet doesn't want the audience to feel bad about the ugly truth of this horrific crime.
By sheer coincidence, the morning I saw Taken, I was reading a news story online and followed a link to the website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It was there that I perused the photos and case histories of kids who just vanished. Looking at that website was a profoundly disturbing experience, because what happened to those children? In most cases, it probably wasn't good. Thinking about the horrors they may have been exposed to frightened me, especially in light of the fact that I just became a first-time father. My point is that child exploitation is deadly serious stuff, and Taken uses it in an exploitive manner. (Kind of ironic, yes?) Who knows - perhaps had I not looked at that site earlier in the day, I might have viewed Taken as just another absurdly generic action picture. But as I sat in the theater watching, I felt my irritation growing. I was actually offended.
Some people are going to like this movie. Some of the people sitting in the theater with me clearly did like it. And that's fine. You can never downplay the appeal of a revenge thriller because they often touch some bit of anger deep down inside of us. Look closer, though, and you will see that Taken is not a harmless piece of action fluff. It is a fraud - and a mean-spirited one at that. If you're going to deal with certain topics, you have a responsibility to treat them with integrity. Taken does not do that at all.
( out of four)
Taken is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing thematic material, sexual content, some drug references and language. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
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