What if a super spy like Jason Bourne in his middle-aged years got into a situation where his daughter is kidnapped by illegal human traffickers? The result of that high concept is Pierre Morrel’s Taken, a swift, compact French action thriller that does a devious number on the kidnapping story genre with the slickness and smarts of deadly espionage. The kidnapping villains clearly have no idea what kind of father they are dealing with.
As the movie opens, the hero of the story, a divorced ex-CIA operative named Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), is already paranoid about his 17-year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) traveling to Paris for the first time with only one other friend, Amanda (Katie Cassidy). After initially refusing to sign consent for her to travel as a minor without parental supervision, he reluctantly agrees thinking that this may be his chance to bond with his estranged daughter since he has moved back closer to his daughter in London, although she has told more than a few lies to be able to slide past Bryan’s seemingly overbearing paranoid assumptions. Then, when she arrives in Paris and while on the phone with her, he overhears her being taken away by some group of men.
The initial introductions of Bryan attempting to reconnect with his daughter and his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), who is now married to Stuart (Xander Berkeley) but still mad at him for sacrificing his family for his covert job are no doubt a little bit hokey. But the movie quickly shows that it means business once Bryan gives his ultimatum to a kidnapper on the phone he overhears, assuredly warning them that he will find and kill them with all the skills he has acquired. As he quickly hears from a spy analyst friend, Sam (Leland Orser) that the kidnapper is part of a sex trade trafficking mob, he finds he has only 96 hours to find his daughter or else she will likely never be found.
Once Bryan flies into Paris, the movie becomes a nonstop, cathartic ride in which the kidnappers can barely blink before they can figure out Bryan’s next move. The director, Pierre Morrel (who previously directed the equally kinetic District B13) and writers, Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen seem to have taken a lot of cues from the Bourne movies from the surveillance tactics and car chases to the martial arts fights and rapid-fire editing, all while giving them their trademark, at times almost monochromatic gloss in true Luc Besson style. And like the Bourne movies and District B13, it is almost perfunctory to try to describe much of the ceaseless action in words, as the film itself rarely takes a breath in showing the lightning speed with which this ex-CIA operative returns to his training roots for a more personal cause.
Although Neeson has wisely chosen to have a far more versatile and challenging career than a conventional action leading man, it is still a wonder that Neeson has never taken on a role until now in his mid-50s. As an actor, he always projects a commanding presence without ever seeming to go for an effect and an actor’s presence is crucial to keeping an action movie grounded in its own reality even when everything about him starts to border on the impossible. And perhaps because his mission is now paternal, his character is also more ferocious than any other recent super spy. The man has no compunction to kill and even electric torture anyone who is involved with the kidnapping and, at one point, he even shoots a flesh wound into the wife of an old fellow French government agent who is purposely not disclosing the information he needs.
If I have a slight complaint against the film in hindsight, it is that it does not give full weight to the more disturbing issue it tackles that is human trafficking. The films from Luc Besson and company are often effective at integrating a human element into the action but also sometimes limit themselves to it, without exploring the larger social consequences involved. That was also true of Kiss of the Dragon (which reduced a supposedly huge drug smuggling operation that Jet Li uncovers into a simple promise made to rescue Bridget Fonda out of her predicament) and, while the film is restrained in depicting the pivotal issue, I wish the filmmakers had tried to insert some more social commentary for the larger issue beyond the father’s single-minded quest to rescue his daughter (and the film lasts a brisk 93 minutes).
But, of course, most fathers would not have the strength and skills that Bryan Mills has to even face up to these nasty, brutish human traffickers and the film delivers on its purpose to give the audience-pleasing thrill of seeing the bad guys cower and squirm against a protagonist who already knows where to find their guns as soon when he enters their hideout. In the beginning, after Bryan gives his ultimatum to a kidnapper on the phone, the kidnapper says smirking, “Good luck.” When the phrase is repeated again later, the villains don’t even have the time to wipe off the smirk.