Friday, March 4, 2011

2009 Backtrack

Last Wednesday I reviewed Unknown, the latest film starring outstanding actor Liam Neeson as an amnesic tourist who goes from trying to rediscover his life to fighting for it. I mentioned the similarities pointed out by others to his earlier film from two years ago, another thriller called Taken. A startling turning point in Neeson's career, it was easy to bridge the gap between the two films. With similar mood, plenty of violence and enough action to pique the senses, it was obvious filmmakers were trying to copy the commercial success of Taken, which debuted number one at the box office and was one of the most talked-about films of the year. Some of you noticed however my admittance that I had not actually seen Taken, and commented to me as to how amazing a film it was. Considering I wasn't seeing a whole lot of modern films at the time it was released, I knew it by mainly reputation. Despite being ultimately underwhelmed by Unknown's unbelievability, I was intrigued enough to get on board with seeing this earlier film. And so, getting my hands on a copy (thanks to Jeff for that) I got home from work, ordered some take-out, popped the DVD in the player, and sat back to see what everybody has been talking about.

They're not exactly the perfect family
Liam Neeson stars as a former CIA operative named Bryan Mills, who is living in retirement after a long career. Serving his country did a lot of good for the world but strained his relationships with his wife and daughter. His wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) divorced him and eventually got a new, rich husband (Xander Berkeley), and Bryan is trying desperately to stay in tough with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), but the long years apart and a controlling Lenore keep Bryan at arm's length. Just turned seventeen, Kim and a friend want to travel to Paris, but need Milton's permission because she's underage. He eventually gives it, but his initial concerns are confirmed when, the day the pair arrive in Paris, they are kidnapped by an Albanian group that focuses on human sex trafficking. Immediately setting off for France, Milton decides to call upon all his years of training to get his daughter back as quickly as possible, because in ninety-six hours' time she will have disappeared forever.

Yeah, I would surrender right about now
Taken is an excellently-made film and much of what the film does well can be directly attributed to director Pierre Moret. An experienced cinematographer, this was only his second feature film but doesn't feel like a rookie job. It's obvious he learned a lot from working with directors such as Louis Leterrier, Corey Yuen and Luc Besson, who also produced the film and is credited as one of its screenwriters. The camerawork is amazing, the action sequences impeccably filmed, and the story told strongly enough to stand up under some scrutiny. Most well done (and possibly most important) is Moret's ability to properly set the mood of each scene, from a joyous birthday party to a gritty slum setting. Getting that scene right so your actors give a more believable performance is key here, and the director nails it.

"... Are you calling me COLLECT??"
Speaking of acting, THIS was exactly the performance I had been hoping to see from Liam Neeson ever since this film's debut. Even though early on, Neeson plays the guy more than happy to get away from the career he left behind, he also looks completely at home in scenes which might not have been condoned by the Geneva Convention. When he tells one of Kim's kidnappers over the phone "I will kill you," you give yourself willingly over to the idea that he WILL do it, and anything else to get his daughter back. The film often feels like a one-man show, but that works out fine considering Neeson is that one man. Maggie Grace was okay, but she doesn't quite pull off playing a seventeen-year-old. Trying a bit too hard to play the "adorable" daughter, she comes off as somewhat false in most of her scenes, only really any good during the pivotal scene in which she's kidnapped. Famke Janssen could have been more interesting as Bryan's ex, but the role never goes beyond the cliche of "distrustful ex." Her ignorance of the world outside her tiny bubble is supposed to be a foil to our hero's near-paranoid experience, but the part is so small and somewhat brief as to dull that sensation. Other potentially interesting characters played by Berkeley, Leland Orser and Olivier Rabourdin don't get as much attention as they probably could have, either. It really is all Neeson, all the time, but I'd be lying if I said that wasn't satisfying all by itself.

Eventually he decided to go beyond just showing the photo around
The film lacks in anything akin to a main antagonist. The reason for this is when Bryan meets one, he kills the bad guy with such efficiency that it's time to move up to the next challenge. Taking bad guys out constantly actually works a lot toward exposing the several layers that expose how real sex trafficking works, from the makeshift brothels and the kidnapping squads to the corrupt police and major businessmen who see kidnapped women as "assets" and not humans. You might not even realize it until after the final credits roll just how scary the real thing is to the women who simply disappear from polite society by the hundreds. That alone puts this film far ahead of its contemporaries by painting a real world problem into a fictional tale of redemption and rescue.

A traffic dispute gone horribly wrong
Taking a page from "current" action films, most notably the Bourne series of films, Taken is an explosive thrill ride with some real social messages to convey. Without Neeson's obvious talents to raise it up, it would probably have been a fine, above-average enjoyable and forgettable genre film with some interesting ideas. Neeson's perfect casting however means that for the ninety-plus minutes you are watching this film, you will be unable to take your eyes from what is happening on the screen. The ending might be a little too pat, but I would still easily argue it as among the best modern action films based on Neeson alone.

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