Judge Christopher Kulik hijacked this assignment before anyone knew it was available.
Our review of Taken (Blu-Ray), published May 18th, 2009, is also available.
They took his daughter. He'll take their lives.
"I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want."
[ Brief silence ]
Facts of the Case
Retired American spy Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson, Batman Begins) is ready to settle back and spend more time with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, The Jane Austen Book Club). However, a fragile situation makes it altogether difficult. Bryan's ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen, Goldeneye) has been upset with his role as a father for the past 17 years. Her new husband is rich, providing Kim with everything she needs. Aside from his old intelligence pals, Kim is all Bryan has left, when it comes to a real family. When Kim wants to travel to Paris for a "small" vacation, Bryan reluctantly agrees, even when his protective instincts tell him it's not a good idea.
Soon after Kim arrives in Paris with her best friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy, Black Christmas), excitement turns to horror as both are kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers! With an open window of 96 hours, Bryan must travel to Paris and track down Kim before she gets sold into sex slavery. Recruiting an old Parisian officer friend doesn't help matters, as he's now a behind-the-desk pencil pusher. So, Bryan has no choice but to rely on his years of combat training and investigative techniques, in a desperate race against the time.
I had no desire to see Taken when it arrived in theaters. To me, it seemed like yet another of the thousand action films concerning someone in pursuit of a kidnapped loved one. If anything, this sounded like an amalgam of clichéd ideas borrowed from Hardcore, Commando, Breakdown, The Bourne Identity, and more. The first twenty minutes were pretty routine stuff: establishing the relationships, hinting at the protagonist's former career, giving us a preview of Bryan's skills, putting the daughter in a vulnerable situation, and then executing the kidnapping. Everything was so by-the-numbers, we might as well have had the plot points up on the screen as subtitles.
However, once Bryan gets out his recording equipment, while talking to his daughter on the phone during the kidnapping, I was hooked. Bryan is cool and confident, even telling Kim the inevitable: she was going to be taken and there was nothing they can do about it. Once she screams and gets snatched from under a bed, we spend the rest of the scene just watching Bryan's face, as he hears what's going on. His reaction is emotionally real, and only an actor of Liam Neeson's caliber could make such a recycled scenario so awesomely effective. We feel his powerless position, thus absorbing the rage generating slowly but surely underneath those cold-as-steel eyes and subtly trembling face muscles. Bryan calmly tells his daughter's kidnappers what the advertisements have been repeating to no end, yet the words are still formidable and chilling. For the next 70 minutes, Taken delivers big time, ultimately becoming a tension-filled crowd-pleaser.
After watching Taken several times, it's now no surprise why it garnered $140 million dollars at the domestic box office. What's really impressive is this came out in the month of January, which is normally a graveyard for horrific potboilers like The Uninvited or forgettable comic absurdities like Bride Wars. Little did I realize that Taken already had done fantastic business all over Europe (and pretty much the rest of the world) throughout 2008 before arriving in the US. Why did audiences respond so well to the film? Aside from the fact that it's a fast-paced yarn, sporting a lean, mean contagious attitude, with some truly despicable villains, it all comes down to one crucial element: Liam Neeson.
One of the finest actors to come along in the past 30 years, Neeson's dramatic resume makes him an unlikely candidate for this role. In fact, the closest he's ever come to this kind of two-fisted action role was director Sam Raimi's Darkman (1990). With Taken, Neeson proves he can do much more than boast an intimidating physical presence (the man is 6'4" for God's sake!). He alone makes the film worth watching, despite the weak story. In the end, we ignore the insane plot twists and are simply mesmerized by this driven character. Neeson is an unstoppable force. We not only root for him, but actually buy him whooping some Albanian ass, in the numerous fight sequences and shoot-outs. When you have an audience cheering a man who will do anything—including shooting innocent bystanders—to accomplish his mission, you know you have a rousing picture. Thank goodness the filmmakers went with an accomplished actor and not some overused, thuggish action star (yes, I'm looking at you Jason Statham!) to control the proceedings.
Another thing I like about Taken is its Euro-flavor. Directed with surprising tightness by cinematographer Pierre Morel (District 13), a Frenchman who frequently collaborates with action maestro Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional), the film never stops to screw around. Shot in and around Paris, the film brings to light the very real, ugly practice of sex trafficking which has become sadly commonplace all over Europe. Many of the scenes showing girls pumped full of heroin and sold as property are positively upsetting. Call these villains over-the-top and exaggerated all you want, but the truth is they uncannily mirror those who have turned this practice into an industry. This isn't the first time they've been used in film (Human Trafficking, Trade), but here we finally get to see some much-needed justice and retribution forced upon them.
When Taken was released domestically, several scenes were trimmed so the film could garner a PG-13 rating. If you ask me, the film still has a brutality which is hard to turn away from, making it stand right at the gates of R-territory. Fox has supplied us with not only the 91-minute theatrical version but also an "extended" international cut, which is barely two minutes longer. It's difficult to spot a difference between the two, because many of the cuts were fractions of scenes designed to cleanse the violence and appeal to a wider audience. Much of the mayhem is smoother in the uncut version, not nearly as rushed and shaky as in the theatrical. This is a rare example of an improved film, when given back its minutes. As for the presentation, the 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer is appropriately drab and gloomy, with a heavy emphasis on greens and blacks, but still remarkably clean. However, it's still shy of the standard, and I'm sure neither single-disc edition or the Blu-ray are much of an upgrade.
Audio is fine in all three Surround tracks. An exciting score by composer Nathaniel Mechaly is respected, but one wishes we heard more of it. Subtitles are provided in English and Spanish. This two-disc package houses all the extras on the first disc, with the second being nothing more than the digital copy. I'm still not crazy about these, but I guess it serves as an acceptable backup, in case the first disc gets damaged. To kick off the bonus features, we start with two commentaries: one by Morel, cinematographer Michel Abramowicz, and car stunt supervisor Michel Julienne; the other is by co-screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen who, back in the day, wrote three Karate Kid movies before hooking up with Besson. Both commentaries—which are only available on the uncut version—are entertaining and packed with information, though some will no doubt be put off by the first one being in French (with optional English subtitles). Rounding out the extras are three featurettes, with the meatiest being the 18-minute "Le Making-Of." Not exactly typical EPK-fodder, the piece provides a good summary of the production, with interviews provided by Neeson, Morel, and Maggie Grace. The second featurette overviews the February 2008 premiere in France, and the final shows how the action scenes were shot and edited. Finally, Fox provides some previews.
Admittedly, Taken is little more than an exercise. However, it's one hell of a workout, and Liam Neeson is the perfect setter. If you missed this film in the theater, now is the perfect chance to pick it up.
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