Monday, February 02, 2009

TAKEN

Since 2004, or somewhere around that general time frame, excitement started bubbling over a new wave of French Horror. Briefly, this sub-genre may be summed up as international art-snuff for hipsters. Professionally lit, skillfully shot, and emotionally uncommitted, films like Haute Tension, Inside, and Martyrs are more physically brutal, unreasonably sadistic, and sexually exploitative than their American counterparts. Yet, the same popular film sites that will (rightfully) deride the work of a Rob Zombie or Eli Roth end up excusing the bad habits of a Xavier Gens simply by misplacing phony allegory upon a film that is so straight-forward in its stupidity. (Not that the tradition of American horror film hasn't had its own share of silly apologists. I found most of the over-intellectualizing in the IFC doc American Horror to be laughable).

To fight that, I'm gonna play cultural commentator myself and offer up the theory that new film critics feel much more comfortable championing a cinema full of nihilism, dread, and soft-cynicism rather than pulling for a more emotionally complex cinema of heroism, honor, and happy endings. Because, and also since 2004, another troop of Frenchmen (Louis Letterier, Luc Besson, Pierre Moral, GĂ©rard Krawczyk and other...) have been grinding out quick-plotted, morally direct films that truly visually smack like that other, true French new wave. In fact, Letterier was the reason last year's The Incredible Hulk emerged as the first fully acceptable comic-book film of the modern era.

Not comic-book related, but far superior to the junk-action graphic novel puke of Angelina Jolie's Wanted, the new Pierre Moral film, Taken, stretches out the familiar rescue/vengeance "not-without-my-daughter" plot into the first good film of 2009. Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a former special-ops military stud and high-security body guard that recently retired from his high-risk occupation in order to live near his already grown-up seventeen year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace). Because Taken is a B-movie, its set-up is ridiculous. Kim wants to go with her friend on an unescorted trip to Europe. Initially Bryan says no, but, eventually, he folds. Almost instantly, the girls are kidnapped and thrust into the underworld of the international sex trade. Off goes Superdad to Europe, taking his badass reflexes and hound dog-like instincts to rescue his sweet thing daughter.

The unexpected casting of Liam Neeson as suburban action hero is great. His tall, lanky, and slightly hunched frame give his character an experienced wisdom that makes you feel confident about his strong promises. This is a refreshing contrast to the puffy-muscle grunting of Stallone, the spray-tan sexuality of Daniel Craig in the Bond movies, or the asexual buzz-kill that is Jason Bourne. Neeson knows how to balance a father's sensitivity and patient understanding with the rigid methods of a scourned man with tunnel vision and purpose. Neeson's calm, steady temper allows him to pull off masculinity in scenes where it would otherwise (with other actors) seem damn near impossible.

I haven't read the reviews of Taken yet, but I'm suspecting that many newspaper critics will express concern over a particular scene where Neeson tortures an Albanian sex-trader in order to obtain the location of his kidnapped daughter. Yes, the scene is particularly suitable for a discussion about the use of torture as interrogation technique, but to do so would miss the larger point of the sequence, which is the important distinction between personal desperation and instructed procedure. I truly doubt that many people, faced with the window-of-opportunity dilemma that Neeson does, would end up acting any differently than he chooses too.

Taken has its holes, and it would be unfair of me to excuse them away simply because of its B-movie status, much in the same way critics excuse away nastiness in French horror simply because they sense a broader social context. Still, there's enough satisfying meat here to feel positive about. Film goers may think Taken is skippable because it was slated for a 2008 release only to get pushed back, but they would be doing a disservice to themselves to hang on to such a thought. Quit making dates to go see all the Best Picture Oscar noms and go see Taken instead!

20 comments:

FilmDr said...

Interesting review. The film sounds much like George C. Scott's Hardcore, a 1979 film about a father looking for his daughter in the sex trade. I tend to like Luc Besson's work anyway, so now I'll try to see Taken.

Marilyn said...

The hubby and I were intrigued by the commercials for this one. It's nice to know you liked it. It'll be on the list.

bill r. said...

Oh, good. I hope I agree with you. I love movies where the badguys mess with the wrong dude's family, and the casting of Neeson is really intriguing.

Rick Olson said...

... he theory that new film critics feel much more comfortable championing a cinema full of nihilism, dread, and soft-cynicism rather than pulling for a more emotionally complex cinema of heroism, honor, and happy endings.

So. Is a cinema of heroism, honor and happy endings per force more emotionally complex? I've seen some pretty complex nihilism, dread and soft cynicism ... what is that, anyway?

Anyhow, taken sounds ok.

Fox said...

Hello guys & Marilyn-

Sorry I was late to responding. I've been away from my computer lately and have just now settled back in...
---

Film Dr.-

Glad you mentioned Hardcore. I saw that on a recommendation from a friend and was pretty captivated by it... for its topic and it's absurdity (George C. Scott runs through a freakin' wall!?!).

I've been meaning to revisit it again for a fresh persepctive. Hmm... TOERIFC possibly??


Marilyn-

I would recommend it. It's something I would like to discuss with film buddies. I want to hear some other opinions. In the meantime, if you can find (or your Hubby can at the library...) District B13 at the video store, give it a shot. It was Pierre Morel's directorial debut before this. There is some really impressive (and real!) stunt action work in it. But Taken doesn't have much of that. There are a few long jumps or two.

Fox said...

I love movies where the badguys mess with the wrong dude's family, and the casting of Neeson is really intriguing.


Bill R.-

I do too. And again, FilmDr. brings up a good example of that with Hardcore. The fact that George C. Scott is not only a pissed-off Daddy but a pissed-off evangelical makes it more interesting.

Rick-

Way to give "taken" a lowercase title. How disrespectful!

So. Is a cinema of heroism, honor and happy endings per force more emotionally complex? I've seen some pretty complex nihilism, dread and soft cynicism ... what is that, anyway?

My quick answer to that first question would be yes. It doesn't always play out that way, of course, and I won't stand by that quick answer as gospel, but I personally find it easier to wallow than to try and keep your chin up.

Now... "soft-cynicism"? You've put me on the spot, but I would say that it's a type of mean sarcasm that kind of hides it's crueler intentions.

bill r. said...

I've been meaning to revisit it again for a fresh persepctive. Hmm... TOERIFC possibly??

Fox, I think Hardcore would be a GREAT choice for TOERIFC. I haven't seen it in a while, either, but I remember it being both very rich, and kind of a mess. Lots to talk about, I think. Plus, Dick Sargent is in it.

PIPER said...

I saw this yesterday with my son. He watched the trailer over and over again and wanted to see it.

It's probably the first non-fantasy, non-kid related movie I've seen with him in the theaters.

I found it fun to watch.

I kind of have a problem with Liam though. He's kind of like Bill Paxton, meaning if he isn't playing down low or way over he's kind of awkward.

I like him Darkman, I like him in Schindlers and then nothing really inbetween.

But all that aside, I am always a fan of a revenge flick. Always. I think it says a lot of bad things about me that I enjoy revenge flicks as much as I do.

Fox said...

But all that aside, I am always a fan of a revenge flick. Always. I think it says a lot of bad things about me that I enjoy revenge flicks as much as I do.

Ah... no, no, no. I don't think so at all. I think you're just human. It's easy for many of us to stand aside and take stances against violent actions when we are living safely, but I think Bryan's behavior in the film is universally relatable. What good parent WOULDN'T do what Bryan did?

What I like about Taken is that Bryan's violent force isn't portrayed in a pleasurable way. He's not sadistic, just desperate.

MovieMan0283 said...

Great line: "Quit making dates to go see all the Best Picture Oscar noms and go see Taken instead!"

Or to sum it up another way, when I'm planning on going to the movies by myself I contemplate which Oscar bait I'm going to attend (and probably dislike, though it will be the kind of disliking I enjoy, if that makes sense). Taken is nowhere to be found on this list. When I'm planning on going to the movies with a friend, in other words to hang out, Taken is one of the highest on the list. It's actually been getting fairly decent reviews from what I've seen.

Karl Hungus said...

You sure have a bone to pick with Torture flicks, Fox. ;)

Although, interestingly enough, one could draw parallels between Taken and the Hostel films, in the sense that Americans visit Europe only to be snatched by organizations who'll sell them to the highest bidder. If it wasn't a French production, I'd say that it exemplifies America's fear of the outside world.

Picked up Taken on Bluray yesterday (it's out here in Ireland already) and I absolutely adored it, had a really enjoyable time watching it, definitely one of the best action films I've seen in years. And that's coming from someone who's pretty much a Luc Besson fanatic. I'll probably throw my review up soon.

Definitely agree with you about Neeson, he's terrific. Hell, he's just about terrific in everything he's in, and doesn't get the lead role half as much as he deserves.

PIPER said...

I agree with the desperation and I like that take.

To me, all the good revenge films are born out of desperation of some kind.

It's hard not to compare this with The Limey, which I enjoyed more. It was more of a character study of Stamp then it was an action movie like Taken.

Breakdown is another great revenge movie born out of desperation. I thought Kurt Russell did a fantastic job in it.

Fox said...

Karl, when you said, "Picked up Taken on Bluray yesterday" I flipped, as if you lived in some future world, but then I saw the "Ireland" thing. :)

Although, interestingly enough, one could draw parallels between Taken and the Hostel films, in the sense that Americans visit Europe only to be snatched by organizations who'll sell them to the highest bidder. If it wasn't a French production, I'd say that it exemplifies America's fear of the outside world.

I think Taken successfully gets away from that b/c it has the feel of B-movie feel. The set-up is pretty ridiculous, because, as you said, the two girls get off the plane into Europe and are quickly snatched. Again, in a B-movie format I think this works. I was also expecting some Albanians to protest over the depiction of them in this film, but so far I haven't heard any.

MovieMan-

Def check it out! I saw it with two friends and even though they didn't share my liking of it, we had a great time.

Piper-

The Limey is another good example that is very similar (as with FilmDr. mentioning Hardcore). When I told my wife she should see it, she scoffed at me and said "That sounds like Man on Fire rip off... whatever.", and I said, "Honey, first of all, Tony Scott can suck my balls, but they've been making these movies since the 30's!"

Karl Hungus said...

Well, I suppose Ireland could be considered some future world.

Piper, good call on Breakdown. Not a spectacular film by all accounts, but Kurt Russell was indeed good, and it had the benefit of the awesome JT Walsh as well.

Ed Howard said...

I can't deny that this had some great action sequences, but on the whole it just couldn't shake this overall feeling of silliness. Like he finds a place where they're keeping some sex slaves, pulls aside a few curtains and doesn't find his daughter, and then soon he's blowing up the whole place in a big chase scene. My fiancee and I turned to each other, both wondering: how does he know his daughter's not there anyway? And why doesn't he give a shit about any of the other girls? There were way too many WTF moments like that where I was taken out of the "wow cool he just broke that guy's neck" vibe. It's the kind of film where pretty much everything is sacrificed to the cool-looking chase or explosion or badass fight scene, and even the payoff was anticlimactic: you get way more of a sense of Neeson's love for his daughter when he's chasing bad guys than when he is actually with her at the end. I don't know, it's the first movie in a long time that I've seen and haven't written about it; it's just so much empty violence that I couldn't think of what to say.

PIPER said...

Ed makes some good points. I thought this movie was an enjoyable experience, but I didn't walk away and think it was a great movie. For this reason, I forgave a lot of things, the biggest one being the overall premise: it all seemed a little too convenient.

To me The Limey is a much more realistic take on this.

But in response to Ed's comment on the sex slave scene, I actually appreciated that he didn't give a shit about anyone else. It added to his desperation and his mentality as it relates to his past profession. He had a job to do and nothing else mattered.

Fox said...

I can't deny that this had some great action sequences, but on the whole it just couldn't shake this overall feeling of silliness.

I agree about the silliness, and like Piper said, you make good points about the plot, but I keep going back to how I was fine with all of that since it read like a B-movie... or, at least to me it did.

I thought it was a film with a pretty direct line towards what it wanted to be. A man is a hero by saving his daughter. I can def see why people would want more, but it was enough for me. I like the raw surface of it even though much of the goings-on were unreal beyond belief. (The way he kills the shiek at the end almost felt like an homage/jokey aside to Raiders of the Lost Ark).

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