Arriving on U.S. screens nearly a full year after it opened in Europe, Taken, the latest hyperviolent potboiler produced and co-written by slick action ace Luc Besson (the Transporter series), feels even more retrograde and anachronistic than that delay might suggest. We’ve moved on, guys. Hell, even 24 has finally begun to openly question the country’s Gitmo ethos, kicking off the current season with Jack Bauer being grilled by a Senate subcommittee about his wanton disregard for basic human rights. (Not that Jack is ever wrong, of course, but at least the show now admits there’s a moral dilemma involved.) Whereas Taken, which was made by the French but plays directly (and pretty cynically) to the American cheap seats, resembles two particularly stupid-yet-watchable episodes from 24’s first couple of seasons—right down to the hero’s desperate quest to save his ditzy teenage daughter, who’s even named Kim.
If only it shared 24’s brutal efficiency. Taken boasts a number of first-rate, high-octane fight and chase sequences, but to get to them you must first endure nearly half an hour of painfully slow exposition, as the film establishes ad nauseam the strained relationship between retired CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) and the irritatingly vivacious Kim (Maggie Grace, even more insufferable than she was on Lost). Apparently a 40-year-old man in disguise, Kim intends to follow U2 around on its European tour (seriously! U2!), but no sooner do she and her equally dumb friend step off the plane in Paris than they’re abducted by swarthy Albanian thugs who intend to sell them into sexual slavery. As luck and a clunky screenplay would have it, though, Kim is actually talking to her ex-spook dad on the phone when the baddies arrive, thereby allowing him to growl eternal vengeance at them while incurring substantial roaming charges.
Did you like how I just casually noted that the movie’s kickboxing badass is played by Liam Neeson, of all people, as if that were totally normal rather than thrillingly bizarre? Unlike Harrison Ford, who just started looking dyspeptic in these roles once he hit his 50s, Neeson comes across as genuinely imposing in his enervated cragginess; if Taken occasionally threatens to transcend its genre’s rampant stupidity, it’s because this inherently soulful Irish thespian lends an arresting frisson to the art of taking no prisoners. And director Pierre Morel, whose parkour-inflected District 13 (2004) was just as moronically exciting, keeps things moving at such a breathless pace—once he finally gets past the interminable setup—that you have little time to reflect on how many elements of the plot make little to no sense. (Voice analysis may be an exact science, but I suspect you need more than two words to pinpoint a speaker’s hometown.)
Still, I confess that I had trouble surrendering to Taken’s cheerfully sadistic notion of “fun.” No doubt you’re already sick unto death of things being characterized as pre- and post-Obama, but when Mills jams a couple of spikes into some dude’s thighs and pumps him full of electricity, or coldly shoots the innocent wife of a French bureaucrat in order to extract information from her spouse, it’s hard not to see the movie’s wholly uncritical endorsement of this ugly behavior as a relic of a less enlightened era. It’s not even as if there’s a dirty bomb threatening to annihilate half of LA, yet again. (“Where! Is! The detonator?!?”) Mills cares about absolutely nothing but his own personal agenda; everyone who gets in his way amounts to highly permeable flotsam. Even in the context of dumb entertainment, that’s a dispiritingly archaic worldview.