Teacher, quizmaster, and new 10YA contributor Stephen Ruiz has a very particular set of skills, and he’s going to use them to re-view the hit that few saw coming: Taken.
The 2009 Pierre Morel film Taken started the now inexplicable action star segment of Liam Neeson’s career. On its surface, Taken is a straightforward action movie that showcases the terrible things a man is capable of when his family is threatened. While far from perfect, Taken works on a number of levels that I didn’t appreciate on my first viewing.
The plot of Taken is quite direct. Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative who has recently retired in order to be nearer to his estranged daughter, Kim. The film begins shortly after Kim’s 17th birthday. As teenagers are wont to do, Kim charms her parents into allowing her to visit France for the summer under the false pretense of visiting a bunch of museums and artsy cultural shit. To the surprise of the trained CIA operative and no thinking person, Kim and her friend Amanda have instead ventured to France to follow their favorite rock band on the European leg of their world tour.
As the name suggests, Kim and Amanda are promptly abducted (or taken!) by a sex trafficking operation. Like any decent revenge/action story, the bulk of the somewhat scant runtime is devoted to Bryan Mills and his oft-referenced “particular set of skills” to bring his daughter home and sunder anyone foolish enough to stand in his way.
I first saw Taken shortly after its theatrical run. I was in my late 20s and staunchly committed to my bullshit persona of self-proclaimed film aficionado and discerning critic of all things artistic. As time marches on, I become gradually more ashamed not with how pretentious I was, but how pretentious I wish I was.
As such, I hated Taken. I mocked people who liked it. I tried to educate them on how ludicrous the plot was, how clumsily written the script was, and how the film offered no substantial commentary on the human condition. I was an asshole. Not every movie is high art, nor should we want them to be.
Ten years later, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Taken. The movie is by no means great, but it’s also far from terrible. Taken is a ham sandwich on white bread. It gets the job done, but you won’t be thinking about it afterwards. You aren’t longing for the next time you get to see it. You won’t go out of your way to recommend it to friends. In short, it’s a wildly okay movie.
Having seen Taken again in my late 30s, I appreciated it on a wholly different basis. Taken is wish fulfillment for any man over a certain age who suspects that his prime is behind him. Though Bryan Mills is much older than I, the story still resonated with me in an unexpected way. My hairline, waistline, and fastball are not what they used to be, but I, too, am still useful, damn it!
After spending ninety minutes in a mindless haze while watching a poor man’s Die Hard and feeling like old dudes could still be badass, I had trouble remembering what elicited so many eye rolls ten years ago. After regaining the douchebag lenses through which I used to view movies, I watched Taken again. While I still enjoyed it, I discovered that I was right. Taken is awful, poorly written, and huge swaths of the movie crumble under even a quantum of scrutiny. To wit…
Though Bryan left the CIA to be near his daughter, he is still close enough to his Agency buddies that they drop in randomly for bittersweet reunions where they share beers and stories about the good old days while peppering in details about how our protagonist was simply the greatest. As they part company, Sam, portrayed by Leland Orser in the least creepy role of his career, offers Bryan a job on a security detail for a pop star.
While making the offer, Orser makes it clear how easy and lucrative the opportunity is while revealing that Bryan has turned him down several times. When Bryan finally accepts, we cut to a crowded arena where Mills & Friends are ushering pop star Sheerah to her dressing room. After the concert on Bryan’s very first night on the job, he is forced to use his particular set of skills on an armed assailant. After dispatching of the attacker, Bryan escorts a rattled Sheerah to her limo where he offers her a drink of whiskey to “take the edge off the shock.” Just kidding, he gave her a can of Orangina, which puzzlingly settles her nerves.
As previously mentioned, Kim and Amanda travel to Paris to follow U2. It warrants a mention that Kim was overjoyed at Bryan’s birthday gift of a karaoke machine. Both of these facts prove that no one involved with the production of Taken has ever spoken to a teenage girl. Paralegals in their 30s love Bono and karaoke, not teenaged coeds.
In keeping with Taken’s commitment to plot expedience, the first person who Kim and Amanda meet in Europe arranges their abduction. They agree to share a cab with Peter to their apartment. En route, Amanda gleefully explains how they’ll be living alone for the summer and that they don’t know anyone in France, thus providing Peter his easiest assignment as a slaver.
When the girls are abducted, one of their captors finds Kim’s discarded cell phone and is treated to Bryan’s protracted soliloquy of revenge, to which he curtly replies, “Good luck.” Bryan shares the recording with Sam, who immediately identifies the birthplace, occupation, associates, and name of the abductors. I’ve never been a member of the CIA, but I am certain they aren’t this effective.
Bryan departs for Paris. Upon arrival, he complies with French law by arriving at the girls’ apartment with a paper bag out of which protrudes a single baguette. Before long, he tracks down Peter who promptly sacrifices his life for another film trope, by being crushed by a garbage truck whose driver found time to engage the horn but not the brakes.
The rest of the film consists of Bryan Mills singlehandedly murdering every Albanian that stands between him and his daughter. For reasons that I assume exist, Bryan’s particular set of skills and attention to all detail falls short of asking any of his CIA buddies to lend a hand. Again, I’m not in the CIA, but I’m sure it’s a lot more spreadsheets and algorithms and a lot less vigilante justice.
After murdering a critical mass of Albanians, Bryan and Kim are tearfully reunited shortly after her sale to the highest bidder and the subsequent murder of said bidder and all of his confederates. When Bryan and Kim return, they are greeted warmly by Lenore, Kim’s mother and Bryan’s ex-wife, instantly unburdened by the deep resentment she once held for the man she used to love.
The next day, Bryan takes Kim to meet Sheerah who is presumably treated to a pitchy rendition of “Pride (In the Name of Love).” All of the relief and joy that Kim feels at being safe and in the company of her loving family are sufficient to make her forget that her best friend was recently and gruesomely murdered.
Sure, Taken is a bad movie with a sparse plot, thoughtless writing, and just a soupcon of racism, but I enjoyed it. The passage of time brought a fascinating new perspective. I wonder which other shitty Liam Neeson movies I’ll enjoy in a decade.
— Stephen Ruiz