Monday, March 2, 2009

"Taken" Review (Volume One, Issue One)

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.


  1. First of all, I'd like to compliment you on your writing style. It's very clear and lyrical. Also much more concise than my sprawling treatise on, of all things, "Notorious." I had essentially no interest in seeing "Taken" until seeing your review. Now I plan to go see it.

    Quick bullet points here:

    *I'm not sure if "The Bourne Supremacy" is the most influential action movie of the last decade anymore. I'd say that title goes to "The Dark Knight" now, for better or worse.
    *Also, as far as influential action movies, what about "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the "Kill Bill" films?
    *I find it hard to believe that "Taken" is ~actually~ better than "TDK." I certainly expect to like "Taken" better (full disclosure: I didn't like "TDK," though I liked it more than Eric), but it seems pretty likely that the writing, acting, special effects, and even cinematography are all better in "TDK" than in "Taken" (Liam Neeson notwithstanding). Comments on this, Eric?
    *Luc Besson is, in many ways, the Lil' Wayne of action filmmakers. He's so damn erratic. "The 5th Element" - wonderful. "Leon" - ehhhh okay I guess. "Transporter" - fantastic. "Transporter 2" - better than "Leon." "Transporter 3" - also better than "Leon."
    *I think for the next few years we'll see a "Dark Knightification" of action movies. Although it seems as though "Taken" is bucking that trend. Hopefully others will follow.

  2. I guess it all depends on what you mean by 'action movie.' I think "The Dark Knight" has already begun to close its fist around the throat of every big-budget film coming out within the next half decade. But I think this is in a more general way such as DC Films halting all current production until they can make the films more "brooding" (maybe I shouldn't use quotation marks since I don't know if that's the actual quote, but it's dumb enough to be). Angsty Aquaman, comin our way!

    And SPOILER ALERT TO YE FEEBLE MINDED the ending of "Watchmen" has been altered to make it almost laughably "Dark Knight"-ish (I wouldn't be surprised to hear Rorsarch's Christian Bale-Batvoice coughing over a self-pitying final montage of a fleeing Dr. Manhattan). I also half-expect to see a lot of overlong superhero epics where one character is all "I represent this spectrum of human existence!" and another character is all "I represent the opposite spectrum of human existence!" so if I want to close my eyes in the theater I won't miss anything important.

    So all of this may come as a surprise when I say that "The Dark Knight" certainly is a better film than "Taken" - in some ways. TDK has a very few moments of visual poetry, but they are absolutely stunning, both of them. The first is Batman's vertiginous descent on Hong Kong (in a narratively worthless sequence). The second, and more lingering, is that of the Joker sticking his head out the window of a cop car and licking his lips like a rabid dog while police lights gently flicker behind him. He deserved the Oscar for that moment alone. There is no single moment in "Taken" that can hold a candle to either of these moments.

    But back to greener pastures: the influence of "Bourne Supremacy" was felt much more strongly in TDK than in "Batman Begins." Compare the relatively flat but intelligible fight scenes of BB to the hyper cut chaos of TDK. Nolan was clearly looking to energize his action sequences, to his credit, but he's not nearly as nimble as big poppa Greengrass. The way the fight sequences in BS were shot and cut has become the de facto way of seeming contemporary. It's become a dumbass shorthand for intelligent people.

    "Crouching Tiger" is an homage to the wuxia and wire-fu Hong Kong films from previous decades, while "Kill Bill" is more or less an encyclopedia of influences (in ways both good and bad). So those are more reverential than influential.

    Also, "Transporter 2" is fucking incredible. The most enjoyably ludicrous film of the past decade.

    You should see "Taken" though. I'd like to c wut u think.