Maybe I was just in a really good mood when I saw it. But I found Taken to be an absolutely great movie. It is unquestionably a trashy action movie of no particular aesthetic merit, a shallow pleasure at best. But oh, how very pleasurable it is.

The movie stars Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA agent who has retired and moved to Los Angeles to reconnect with his estranged daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), a 17-year-old living the customary life of a spoiled brat with her indulgent mother Lenore (Famke Janssen) and wealthy stepdad Stuart (Xander Berkeley). One such indulgence is a trip to Europe to follow U2 for a month-long tour, something Bryan finds questionable in the extreme, but he allows himself to be guilted into it, though not without arming Kim with a laundry-list of guidelines to follow.

Bryan's paranoia turns out to be quite well-placed; Kim and her BFF Amanda (Katie Cassidy) have hardly been in Paris half an hour when a group of thugs break into the empty apartment where they're staying, kidnapping them to press them into service as drugged-out prostitutes. Luckily for the girls, not so much for the kidnappers, Kim has her dad on the phone when this all happens, and he hears just enough to have a good idea of where to start looking for the kidnappers. Not to mention that it gives him the opportunity to issue a threat that you might have heard in the trailer, and might have read on the poster, but it's such a goddamn brilliant bit of purple prose, delivered by Neeson in such a terrifying purr, that I find myself anxious to repeat it in full:
"I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you."
It's off to the races from that point on, and your ability to enjoy Taken whatsoever is largely going to be a function of your ability to turn off the parts of your brain that control suspension of disbelief and morality, and settle in for an hour of an enraged papa bear roaring his way through Paris en route to exacting bloody revenge on the men who took his little girl. The film is a glossy slab of empty calories that represents one of the highest recent peaks of a very particular film discipline: this is a Luc Besson Production, with all the magnificent badassery that phrase promises but only sometimes delivers.

Written by Besson and his frequent partner Robert Mark Kamen, it's hardly the film's scenario that sets it apart from hundreds of other projects. The two men most responsible for elevating Taken from the status of trash to exorbitantly entertaining trash are Neeson and director Pierre Morel, whose single previous directorial credit, also for Besson, was District B13. That earlier film struck me as a series of some of the best action sequences of the 00s strung too-infrequently along a plot that tries to cram far too much social commentary and "intelligence" into a film that is appealing largely because of its Big Dumb Action Setpieces. Taken is exactly the solution to District B13's problems; once the action starts, it never stops, and the plot consists of absolutely nothing beyond "Liam Neeson beats the crap out of anyone between him and his daughter", there's no convoluted narrative leaps to keep up with. Really, the script has it both ways: opening with a healthy chunk of drama so that we'll have some actual investment in our hero, and thereafter taking that as written, so that the fun doesn't have to stop.

"Fun" I call it; but it is certainly soulless fun. It is predicated entirely upon the viewer's desire to watch unabated, well-choreographed and well-edited violence (the film certainly ought to please everyone who thought that the Jason Bourne movies and their knock-offs were anarchically cut together). Do note that I'm using "soulless" as an adjective, not a judgment; sometimes the best steak in the world isn't going to cut it when you have a taste for a hamburger from the local bar, and that is the proper way to approach Taken. It is junk, but executed with enough flair and energy that it is compulsively watchable anyway.

Anyway, I mentioned two men who made Taken so great, and I ought to follow through on that: Liam Neeson. He's capable of being a great actor, but it wouldn't add anything to the film at hand if he put so much energy into it; instead, he suffices for being hugely charismatic. He underplays everything in a film that could easily have tipped into hammy melodrama, and single-handedly restores a sense of coolness that has been largely missing from action movies for many years. Given that Taken is a European production, it doesn't seem amiss to suggest that Neeson's mirthless and harsh performance is mostly similar to the implacable killers in French and Italian action films from the 1960s and '70s. He's a deadly serious figure in a genre that has become more and more silly in the last couple of decades, and it's a refreshing throwback indeed. This kind of highly competent, highly professional action hero is the kind of wish-fulfillment character that makes so many tough-guy pictures such irresistible guilty pleasures; and if that's not praiseworthy in any moral or social sense, well, to that I can only say, "screw it". It's rousing and entertaining, and given how few movies actually succeed at such a seemingly modest goal, that's quite enough for me.

Reviews in this series
Taken (Morel, 2008)
Taken 2 (Megaton, 2012)
Taken 3 (Megaton, 2014)