Taken Offers Actions Fans a Smidgen of Solace
Perhaps it’s the cushion of low expectations. Or perhaps it’s the lingering aftertaste of disappointment left by such poorly shot, poorly chopped recent action entries as The Dark Knight and Quantum of Solace. Whatever it is, I was absolutely flush with it during a recent screening Luc Besson’s latest film. Let’s get a few things straight. Taken isn’t a lot of things. It isn’t directed by Luc Besson, although he is unquestionably its auteur. It isn’t realistic. It isn’t socially constructive. It isn’t the result of a particularly distinguished screenplay. And it isn’t a great film. It is, however, a good film, and that is increasingly more rare than a great or a terrible one.
The very goodness of this film boils down to two things: one tangible, the other intangible. The first is Liam Neeson, who is almost frighteningly tangible here, revealing a strength and speed in his lima-bean frame previously unwitnessed (his athletics in The Phantom Menace being the closet thing to a clue). The other, the intangible, is the sense that here is finally a picture that has absorbed and fully understood the lessons imparted by The Bourne Supremacy, unquestionably the most influential action film of the last decade. It is also the first film since Supremacy’s follow-up, The Bourne Ultimatum, to make ground-level kinetics and razor-sharp editing as thrilling as John Woo and Michael Bay at their most elegant 1990s-baroque (Hard Boiled and The Rock, respectively). Replacing the incompetent pyrotechnics of The Dark Knight with swiftness and brutality, Taken pares down recent extravagances to the gut (dis)pleasures of flesh, metal and bone interacting and conquering one another.
This is not to say it is a film without flaws, far from it. The invigorating action sequences are bookended by opening and closing segments whose tedium is exceeded only by their mawkishness. The utterly ravishing Famke Jansen (surely the most beautiful woman over 40 years old) is wasted here as an object of sexual loss. The casting of Neeson, who has over a half a century under his belt, continues the contemporary, absurdist trend of casting pensioners with arthritis as the bone-crushing destroyers of the young (i.e. Stallone, Willis, Ford). The acting surrounding Mount Neeson is at best inconsequential and at worst insipid. There is a causal racism (which could benevolently be called ‘xenophobia’) at play throughout and a shocking denouement in which the Ugly American faces no consequences whatsoever for his post-modern rampage.
It should be noted, however, that many of the films lesser qualities interact with its worthier charms to present a fascinating friction. The xenophobia of Neeson’s character is tempered by the dual knowledge that his character’s accent is not of American soil and that the actor himself hails from foreign shores. The film’s distrust of foreigners also seems to be more a stylistic, genre-based decision rather than a deeply held political commitment. Finally, the casting of a weathered monument like Liam Neeson adds a surprisingly emotional undercurrent of poignancy and regret that could never be gleaned from the young and beautiful Daniel Craig, no matter how hard he pouts (and I say this as a fan of the newest Bond).
Neeson’s steel-eyed willingness to throw his character into a moral abyss, with no excuses and no thought of forgiveness, gives him an emotional weight unlikely to be found on the page. There exists a chasm between the man’s brain and body, between his heart and his head. The fatherly clumping together of wrinkles when he smiles at his daughter seems to come from a different, segmented part of himself than the cold-blooded murderer frequently on display. It is within this chasm that Neeson has both lost himself, and found his audience. Taken solves the post-modern problem engendered by such films as GoldenEye (1995), Mission: Impossible 3 (2006) and the aforementioned Dark Knight and Quantum of Solace, which have all attempted to drive a wedge of sentiment and self-consciousness into an aging, possibly irrelevant icon.
Luc Besson’s latest can thus be most usefully be seen as a blueprint to a proper follow-up to Martin Campell’s second James Bond reboot masterpiece, Casino Royale (the first being the aforementioned GoldenEye). That is to say, Taken is the film Quantum of Solace wished it could be, though still not quite as good as it should be. Alas, Taken’s finale proves it to be a stylistic exercise superior to its own goal and Neeson has crafted a character whose own profundity dwarfs his modest surroundings. Despite all this, Taken points the way out of the aesthetic dead-end suggested by Quantum’s recent hand-held hell and the Batman franchise’s stylistic deadweight. It is now only a matter of time before a superior film makes full use of its innovations.