Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Liam Neeson Wants Justice

Pierre Morel's Taken, based on a screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen is a slickly packaged, by-the-numbers, thriller that succeeds in generating major thrills thanks to a riveting performance by Liam Neeson.  If you take the time to think about it, questions start to creep in and you might ask yourself if it's even possible that Neeson could get as far as he does without so much as a scrape.  But, as Hitchcock would say: this is a question for "the plausibles" -- that segment of the audience who would rather dissect what they're watching than sit back and be entertained.  Taken  is not a movie for the plausibles.  Taken is a movie for people who like to believe that super-spies like Liam Neeson exist, to preserve the order of civilization and defend the innocent against insidious unseen evils.  If you get onboard with the concept, the movie will sweep you away and leave you breathless for 90 rapidly paced minutes. 

The story centers on Brian Mills (Neeson), a former-spy who has retired and moved to Los Angeles in order to be closer to his estranged daughter Kim (Maggie Grace).   When Kim asks him for permission to fly to Europe for the summer he reluctantly agrees, weighed down by apprehensions based on years in the field.  The early scenes between Mills, Kim and his ex (Famke Janssen) are overwrought, as the Mills family dynamic is mapped out in broad strokes, but it turns out Mills is right.  Within moments of stepping off the plane in Paris, Kim and her friend Amanda are seduced and ultimately kidnapped by an efficient female slave trafficking syndicate.  Mills is on the phone with Kim as she is taken and even under pressure he is resourceful enough to record the call as he promises her kidnappers: "I don't know who you are...but I will find you and I will kill you."

From this point on, the film kicks into overdrive as we follow Mills to Paris on a private jet and he proceeds to systematically attack and pursue every clue with ruthless determination and brute force.  All of this would be utterly ridiculous if not for Neeson's grounded performance.  He anchors the film and keeps us emotionally invested until the film's feverish final minutes.  Taken brings to mind relatively recent kidnapping yarns such as Roman Polanski's Frantic  and Ron Howard's Ransom, but this movie is significantly better thanks to a fresh and irresistible hook.  In Taken the kidnappers mess with the wrong family.  Even as the story probes dark material, we are exhilarated by the chase and by Neeson's determination.  The movie isn't just about the payoff, it's about watching bad people pay for their sins and there's a genuine catharsis in that.