Daddy Issues
by Eric Hynes

Dir. Phillipe Morel, U.S., 20th Century Fox

Like a stripper bounding from a child’s birthday cake, Taken, the latest lowest-common-denominator genre product from Luc Besson’s Europa Corp assembly line (Transporter, Taxi), has the ignoble distinction of being the first true Bush-era holdover to open after Obama’s inauguration. The historical record will note that Taken beat the similarly incongruous Confessions of a Shopaholic by three whole weeks, even if the latter is certain to inspire greater scorn. While a recessionary film that presumably glorifies conspicuous consumption deserves whatever grief it gets, it’s notable that a vengeful, murderous, morally unconflicted, unilateralist torturer can still sneak into theaters with nary a scalding think piece and top the box office charts. One film is genre porn for girls and the other is for boys, and we all know toward which the culture at large is more forgiving. Skull crushing won’t go out of style just because we’ve supposedly transitioned to a more responsible, Guantanamo-free era, yet few forthcoming films are likely to rally around Taken’s Cheney-Rumsfeld ethos, sporting a protagonist proud to have been a fire-first “Preventer” for the U.S.A.

What’s odd about Taken—so odd that the jingoism does get dulled somewhat—is its filtered, import-export awkwardness. A French production about a retired American hero (played by Irishman Liam Neeson) who descends upon Paris to save his innocent backpacking daughter from slave-trading Albanians, conspiring Frenchmen, predatory sheiks, and greedy Americans, the film aspires to B-grade Bourne but comes across as a housebound hack’s thrice translated pipe dream. Do 17-year-old Valley Girls really care about U2, let alone embark on an ill-fated, daddy-disapproved pilgrimage to trail their European tour? Do middle-aged men—particularly middle-aged ex-government assassins —actually wear Hawaiian shirts? Do Albanian thugs all have crescent and star tattoos on their thumbs and scowl across card tables? Must drugged-out prostitutes all have zombie eyes? Do international slave auctions really take place on the set of Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” video? Some may see a Spaghetti Western’s purity in reverently taking genre clichés to their extremes—dislocations and misreadings be damned—but Taken can’t muster or even ape poetic or formal grace. Even worse, it takes its silly self seriously.

For those who get off on connect-the-dots plotting, who approach action cinema as a chance to watch gears grind and pistons fire, Taken will pleasingly exemplify point-to-point purposefulness, achieving three acts in a tidy ninety minutes. It has the unwavering integrity of a line segment. Neeson’s Bryan Mills embodies that line. Written (by Besson and frequent collaborator Robert Mark Kamen) and performed without any extraneous traits or quirks, hitches or shadings, Mills has one purpose in this film: to love his daughter. During Act I, he’s a retired government assassin who’s moved to Los Angeles to be near teenaged Kim (Maggie Grace), who lives with her icy mom (Famke Janssen) and super-rich stepdad (Xander Berkeley). He’s out of touch and has a lot of catching up to do, but gee-whiz he loves her so. He’s shown flipping through photo albums, buying her cutely inappropriate gifts, taking disposable camera photos of her, and even, while also calling her on the phone, picking up those photos from the developer. Literally all we see Bryan do is fawn over Kim from near and far. He takes a security gig so that he can ask a pop diva for advice to pass along to his aspiring singer daughter. He agrees to let her travel to Europe only if she takes his cell phone and agrees to call every day. One could call it creepy and smothering, but Taken knows that daddy’s love conquers, and foresees, all.

In the film’s sole compelling set piece, the abduction of Kim and her doomed blonde friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) by Albanian smugglers, director Pierre Morel wisely privileges Bryan’s POV. On the phone with Kim as she’s captured, Neeson listens to garbled screams, and his face drops from concern to despair before hardening into calm, murderous vengeance. He then nails the ensuing “I’m going to hunt you down and kill you” speech—ruined in full by the film’s trailer—and follows the story’s lead by switching to aging assassin auto-pilot. Neeson has always had a fine, rich voice, its Irish default lending even unaccented readings a pleasing melody, and here he gives pre-execution kiss-offs more humanity than they deserve. But the problem with his performance lies in his professionalism. If ever a role cried out for a subversive take, it’s this big daddy boy scout. Playing his one note with unwavering integrity, Neeson squanders the film’s only chance at stirring to life. With no Paul Verhoeven on hand to goose the story from behind the camera, it’s up to Neeson to give Bryan just a little shade, to cloud his love for Kim with just a hint of impropriety, to give him some other motivation or pleasure outside of a parental imperative, to make him, in either sense of the term, a real character. It’s not that Neeson’s unconvincing as a loving, vengefully protective father; it’s that his loyalty to Bryan’s dour, unleavened purpose robs the film of an attitude, a heroic affect, a bright shiny object to distract audiences from the surrounding inanity. Though lacking Neeson’s chops (to put it generously), bald brawlers like Jason Statham give better face, chewing or smashing the scenery no matter the flimsy motivation. Neeson invests in meaningless punches, dulling their impact.

Marauding Bryan snaps innumerable necks, shoots his friend’s wife in the arm, and electrocutes a man to death, but his actions never threaten to overwhelm his sense of purpose. He discovers scores of captive women but shows no interest in saving them, or in obliterating the bizarre abduction trade (which preys on tourists to, as an expert says, “cut down on transportation costs”); he only wishes to infiltrate it to find his virginal Kim. One expects the man behind The Professional to push a few ambiguously inappropriate buttons, and Besson does indeed devise a perverse denouement: at a slave auction, Bryan holds a gun to an Arab’s jheri-curled head, demanding that he buy his “100% pure” daughter. When father and daughter are finally reunited, they clinch warmly and exhaustedly with a sheik’s circular bed looming in the background. But Morel shoots it straight, Neeson’s fatherly affections stay pure, and Taken maintains a curious banality until the end. Exploitation that fails to provoke, a thriller that neglects suspense, the film can’t even permit a streak of flamboyance on its ponderous path to camp.

Former cameraman Morel has carried over little of the energy or refreshing physicality from his previous Besson collaboration, District B13. Once you’ve seen one chop to the windpipe you’ve seen them all, and even Morel seems bored. Meanwhile the plot pops along without plausibility, without suspense, with only its own momentum to honor and support. A knife-wielding assailant comes on like a masked bandit foiled in a home security commercial; cars bound down dusty hills and launch into triple Lutz twists not seen since Stephen J. Cannell recruited the A-Team; death by wine bottle, death by falling overboard, death by gunshot with the victim pleading, “Please understand, it was only business.” I’ve heard that one before, boys, and I’m still not buying.