Friday, February 6, 2009

Taken (2008)


Taken is being widely interpreted as an action film, which is true in its effect but not nearly as much in its implications. Likewise, it has been battered by some acutely politically correct film critics as a reactionary, George W. Bush-era fantasia of fetishistic vengeful torture and bloodletting, inflicted by an American on Albanian and French villains. That misses the point; the ethnic particulars of the characters, while successfully engendering plausible paradigmatic dynamics—immigrant Albanian gangsters are a source of criminality in France, and human trafficking is a major global industry in which such notorious organizations partake—are not crucial to understanding and processing Taken's efficacy. The producer and co-screenwriter (with Robert Mark Kamen) is Luc Besson, whose penchant for action-infused narratives is occasionally matched by a happily received interest in human relationships. This distinguishes Leon—easily Besson's greatest film—which possessed a sentiently delicate growing affinity as its pulsating bloodstream, not the frantic, sensorially overpowering action sequences that complemented it. Taken functions not as mere pyrotechnic showmanship, but as a curiously restrained exercise in genre-renewal, so to speak; Besson and director Pierre Morel strive to enhance an admittedly weary vessel, that of the revenge action thriller. Eagle Eye was an action movie with a stimulative concept, though the film's more formulaic rendering was less than completely noteworthy. Taken is, at times, spiritually not unlike The Limey or the film that inspired the 1999 picture, Point Blank. There is a gradual, simmering intellect operating beneath the incendiary Taken: if it does not merit unconditional accolades, it should at least not go unmentioned.

Taken is an intriguingly paced picture. At ninety-three minutes long, it allows the first act of the narrative to be dedicated to constructing the consanguinity that serves as the cylinder for the film's intangible pilgrimage. That odyssey serves as a microcosmic statement about fathers and daughters—and, like The Limey, illustrates the undying love an absentee father tirelessly possesses for his little princess. This is (almost wordlessly) demonstrated in the near-opening scene, which is of Liam Neeson's retired American master spy Bryan Mills responding to his own knowledge of his daughter—when he was in her life, he gleaned that she wanted to become a singer. The gift he purchases for her birthday represents that memory. He proudly hands her the gift, which he has poured his heart into, and she fleetingly responds, but when her immensely rich stepfather Stuart (Xander Berkeley) gives her a thoroughbred horse one moment later, she is overcome by the astonishing, living present. Bryan's nonplussed countenance speaks volumes about the socio-economic reality, as well as the fecklessness with which he has attempted to reassert himself in his daughter's life. When his ex-colleagues come by for a barbecue, he explains to them (admittedly in too neat and expository a fashion) why he has left his former life behind. He wants to simply reconnect with his daughter. Taken's economy of style is largely slyly coordinated, but its acceptance of a few short cuts may alienate some. Conveniently, Bryan and his friends have taken a one-night moonlighting job providing security for a pop diva in Los Angeles—opening the stage for Bryan to ask the youthful but famed singer for any advice on behalf of his daughter. Too obvious? Perhaps, but the film, behaving in an almost slumberous manner—befitting the faux superannuated demeanor of Neeson's retiree, belied by his razor-sharp senses and eventually unveiled expertise—spends enough proportional time to make such occurrences fairly believable within the picture's framework.

Once the “plot” of the film begins, however, the patience afforded to establishing everything that matters to Bryan is eschewed in favor of purely cinematic, unpretentiously compact storytelling. The end result is a deliriously fast-paced, hectically unsettling olla podrida portrait of kinetically tumid hostilities. Taken's color schema is a washed out, almost bilious canvas. Cinematographer Michel Abramowicz captures leading man Neeson in a recurring haze of gas, smoke, steam, fog and both natural and artificial light. Contributing a deft numinousness to the proceedings, the visually stimulating mise-en-scene seems to continually enshrine Bryan's actions as the consequences of casuist love for one's own blood. Recalling the casuist St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori and his monumental book, Theologia Moralis, when Neeson's Bryan stumbles on one camp of beleaguered, drug-addled sex slaves after another, the film intelligently posits his reactions as legitimate. By systematically penetrating the Albanian traffickers' network, he is cast in a virtuous light; that his motive is limited to finding and rescuing his own daughter is wisely viewed as understandable. Tuning the very foundation of comprehending the nature of ethics is highly difficult, in its myriad contradictions when applied to the various incarnations of humanity, but Taken's casuistry is refreshing. Bryan is not a man of absorbed abstractions and ideologies, but a breathing source of specific correction.

In an undeniable way, however, Taken is a parable and model for absentee fathers. The Limey examined the gash in the lives of its father and daughter's connective emotional fluency, while Taken allows itself to imbibe the cathartic trappings more typically attendant to films broadly defined by their interpretations of vengefulness. Unlike most films of this kind, however, Taken is far more serene and troubled, inclusive and off-putting all at once. Bryan's emotive, unconditional love for his daughter—so commendably conveyed by Neeson (the scene in which he is doomed to listen to his daughter's kidnapping finds resonance in the actor's magnificently indefatigable and transmitting face)—provides an investment of audience emotion lacking in the Bourne franchise, for instance, which, in all of its hyperactive dramatics and pyrotechnics, was fundamentally about a man running to express anger at his employers.

Taken's visual patterns and intelligently mounted singularities make Morel's film more nutritious than the great bulk of films often defined by their instances of gun-play. From the very beginning, Taken gently surprises the viewer. The first surprise is the presentation of the title itself. As Neeson's Bryan walks past a picture of his daughter, the film's title appears—large, and in white text, against a dark background. Yet the filmmakers keep the title planted on the screen as the background changes with the next scene—the uncharacteristically bright glare of daylight, with Neeson's Bryan parking his car. This slight jolt created by the mere retaining of the title on the screen accurately describes the subdued yet effective manner in which Taken nudges one peppered surprise after another throughout the narrative. When Bryan's best friend refers to him as “Rambo,” the film later takes this statement to a meta conclusion, as the film comments on the action film: Bryan actually refers to himself over the phone to his inevitable adversary as his “nightmare.” In one scene of derring-do, the trendily loud sounds of machine gun fire are brilliantly subverted by the filmmakers, as the sound actually drops as the gunfire occurs. This creates an intrinsically more surreal recording of the action sequence unfolding. Happily, there is only one major explosion throughout the entire film, and it is perfectly calibrated as the punctuation of a series of gasoline barrels being knocked down like bowling pins in a rhythmic dance. This is linked to the film's one major car chase sequence, which is largely captured through low shots that make the battling jeeps look like giant carnivorous animals in the mud. The chase scene is capped off by a beauteous shot of large globs of mud spilling downward like melting icicles from a wintry roof, splattering about a villain's windshield at just the musically perfect moment.

Certain ubiquitous moments of the “action” genre remain, and it is always worth wondering why villainous infrastructure is never quite trustworthy. However, Morel simultaneously emphasizes and modifies the tale's most pointedly resonant properties. An exchange between sinister snake and heroic avenging angel like, “It wasn't personal. It was just business,”/“It was all personal to me,” may have initially read as prosaic and formulaic but are gifted by an aesthetic propulsion of sight and sound. As Bryan pitilessly shoots a man to death in an elevator, a cloud of smoke wafts and mushrooms in the small environ. That smoke—representing the hell the slain has to look forward to, and the anagogic endorsement of Bryan's conduct—speaks volumes and bolsters the dialogue as simply the words people have for one another juxtaposed with the commentary of visages afforded by the filmmakers. Taken allows itself to be viewed as a wish fulfillment exercise for missing-in-action fathers—Bryan's daughter's abduction provides him with the condition to prove his heroism and love to her, leaving the horse-giving, rich stepfather in the proverbial dust—as well as the blessing of good mercilessly vanquishing evil, and an ethically casuistic tale of the love a father has for his child.

15 comments:

Film-Book dot Com said...

And here I thought I wrote lengthy and thorough reviews.

Sam Juliano said...

"Happily, there is only one major explosion throughout the entire film, and it is perfectly calibrated as the punctuation of a series of gasoline barrels being knocked down like bowling pins in a rhythmic dance. This is linked to the film's one major car chase sequence, which is largely captured through low shots that make the battling jeeps look like giant carnivorous animals in the mud. The chase scene is capped off by a beauteous shot of large globs of mud spilling downward like melting icicles from a wintry roof, splattering about a villain's windshield at just the musically perfect moment."


"In an undeniable way, however, Taken is a parable and model for absentee fathers. The Limey examined the gash in the lives of its father and daughter's connective emotional fluency, while Taken allows itself to imbibe the cathartic trappings more typically attendant to films broadly defined by their interpretations of vengefulness."

I cite the first passage for it's pounding description of the film's essence--action sequences--and it's glorious and sensory writing, and I cite the second as it really identifies when the true underpinnings of this seemingly souless film are.

I have not seen TAKEN just yet--perhaps I'll be able to see it over the weekend, but as you regularly make reference to Soderbergh's THE LIMEY with Terrence Stamp, I admit I'm more interested. (especially since I liked that film quite a bit)
When you speak early on of "human trafficking" are you hinting towards the main premise of DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, Alexander? That was another most intriguing film in large measure. And the mentioning of Luc Besson and LEON is also noted.

The 'spritual' connection to THE LIMEY, "the undying love an absentee father has for his daughter" makes at least for a potent(and emotional) dramatic center, that might at least partially mitigate against the "pyrotechnics" you speak of here. Still, your metculous description of Michael Abramowicz's accomplished cinematograhy does recommend the technical aspect of the film.

Looks like another marvelous piece at Coleman's Corner, and all I can say at this point is that plan to see the film soon.

Film-Book dot Com said...

I most say, I like the way you deconstructed Taken and examined the individual pieces and minutiae that made up the whole. You sent me to the dictionary a few times during my read by the way.
I have only seen one of the Bourne films (mostly because it is too watered down from the book)but you are correct, I was never emotionally invested in Jason the way I was in Bryan.

Sam makes some good points about the action in the film and its underpinnings.

You mentioned things most people would not notice because they believe they are seeing a mere action film on screen.

Coleman, you have got to be a writer. Laymen do not put together prose that well.If you are not a writer, you are missing your calling.

Alexander Coleman said...

Film-Book dot Com, thank you for the exceedingly kind words. I concur with your point, which is that too many people are handicapped by blinders when taking in "a film like this." I'm glad to hear you agree about the Bourne movies; I've never read the book(s) on which they were based, but the emotional connection to Bourne was always tenuous. Critics should consider what films are truly saying beneath the surface of whichever "genre" or categorization they supposedly belong to. That is why many critics find more worth in Detour than The Best Years of Our Lives, for just one rather extreme example. As for your assertion that I'm a writer, I have indeed written three heretofore unpublished novels. I wrote this review extremely quickly, and probably should have held off on posting it until taking a look at it myself (as always, ha!) but thank you once again for the wonderfully kind words.

Sam, thank you for the comment as always! And thank you for the kind words, too, and for the quotation of passages you found especially worthwhile or exciting. I'll be interested in what you think of the film. Yes, good call on Dirty Pretty Things, Sam. Like you, I'm a fan of The Limey, so the comparison is a pleasant one. Though Taken is more of an "action film," I did find it to be rewarding on its own terms. The lighting is indeed very accomplished! Thank you again for the tremendously kind words.

Evan Derrick said...

I would take things a step further and say that the 1st act exposition (and the moment when Neeson stops the singer) were definitely too obvious. The additional contrivance of having Neeson on the phone at the same moment his daughter is being kidnapped doesn't help things. The film works in spite of those handicaps, mainly because it is such a pure, visceral trip down vengeance lane, but those opening missteps are the worst of the film.

I do agree with on the explosions - I'm glad there was only one. I'm also glad there was only one car chase, which I found to be one of the more tedious sequences in the film. Those action flick tropes paled in comparison to Neeson exacting personal, intimate justice (like the elevator shooting you mentioned). And yes, much of the dialogue would seem "prosaic and formulaic" if not for Neeson's "magnificently indefatigable and transmitting face." He sells us those trite lines as confidently as Cheney selling us the war on terror.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Evan, I agree with you (although the scene with Bryan listening to his daughter being kidnapped somehow worked for me, although it would have been far better if it came from a second phone call inspired by seeing Amanda's abduction.

It would probably have been asking too much of this filmmaking team to make the relationship between Bryan and his daughter as impeccably, austerely convincing as in an Ozu film, though I would love to see a movie where such deliberate intelligence was the set-up for "a pure, visceral trip down vengeance lane." Haha. Thank you very much for the comment, Evan.

christiandivine said...

This is must see for me now, if only because it's cool to see a film like this come out of left field here and be a success. LA FEMME NIKITA is still Besson's best film to me, as I'm one of the few who find LEON unbearable -- I can't stand Natalie Portman in it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, Christian, why the hating on Natalie? Too overwhelmingly precocious and perfect?

I hope you enjoy Taken. It's the best, most fluid piece of action filmmaking I've seen in a while. Admittedly, that is not the highest praise, since every new action film I have seen in the last six months has left me cold. I do wonder why they had to use music in a couple of scenes, but I can tolerate it.

iteresting choice alex said...

where there is no solution ther is no problem

Moses Hernandez said...

Finally SOMEBODY saw many of the layers of this movie. In fact you saw many more in this than I think anyone else out there. Great work. I must admit I just enjoyed the ass kicking on display.

Alexander Coleman said...

Haha, Moses--thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

Damn what a defense of a movie that after seeing it today I'd say has been a little undervalued by too many critics. Not everything can be boring Oscar bait after all.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous! I agree with your sentiment (naturally, haha).

Infidel said...

Alexander, I've had my eye on your blog for a long time now. I gotta say I'm almost unspeakably impressed by you. This review for example shows just how free your mind is. You judge films in a manner that is rich and thought provoking. No blinders. You do as you say, looking at the films in their thematic complexities. You're a brilliant gentleman and cinematic scholar, Mr. Alexander Coleman.

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow, thank you, Infidel. I'm overwhelmed by your comment.