When I heard the new action-thriller Taken was PG-13 instead ofthe expected R, I immediately made the world's wittiest and mostinsightful prediction about how it was destined to suck.
No one was there to hear it, so you and the fine people at Guinnesswill just have to take my word on it. But PG-13 is usually death foraction movies the way heaping teaspoons of poison are death formortals. That rating is basically a huge sign saying "Caution: Thefollowing film is safe and predictable and everyone will turn out OKand the characters will make bad jokes at each other instead ofswearing. In fact, you should probably just stay home, turn off thelights, and pass out during the second half of The Matrix justlike you always do, you turboloser."
But it's hard to fit all that in that tiny ratings box, so it's handyto condense it into a short string of alphanumerics. Not that an Rratings is by any means a guarantee of quality; that just means whenbad guys get shot, they may leak an opaque red fluid the real worldknows as "blood." They do tend to have a much higher success rate thantheir wimpier teen-friendly cousins, though, making it all kinds ofsurprising that Taken is pretty great.
CIA operative Liam Neeson has retired to be closer to daughter MaggieGrace, who's all but grown up as he's been away on duty. When Grace'sfriend invites her to spend the summer unaccompanied in Paris, Neeson,under pressure from his ex-wife, relents and lets her go.
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But within hours of landing, Grace and her friend are kidnapped by agang intending to force them into prostitution. With scant details onthe captors, Neeson jets to Paris unaccompanied, unauthorized, andwith only a four-day window before his daughter disappears off the mapcompletely.
"Safe" is not a word I'd apply to Taken, which dishes outviolence, grit, and unexpectedly nasty plot developments withoutdrawing any special attention to itself. Understatement in an actionmovie is about as common as a Seattle sports championship, so directorPierre Morel's Hollywood debut (he previously made the hilariouslyacrobatic French action film District 13) is a promising one.Along with its recent spade of horror movies, it looks like the littlenation of France is finally making its first contribution to arts andculture.
Taken's quick, brutal action mirrors a plot that's heavy on theturns of Neeson's investigation. Kept brisk and coherent, his huntmaintains its momentum without ever feeling like a wild goose chase.
Credit writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen for much of that.These guys have written so many movies their IMDB pages are as thickas the Bible. Their output makes Nora Roberts look like J.D. Salinger.(What do you mean you've never heard of Nora Roberts? Don't we allwork in bookstores and sigh with rage whenever we realize that if apile of her complete works fell on us we'd be crushed into a grainy,pink ooze? Oh, forget the whole thing.)
Those two have written so much it's impossible to tell whether they'remercenary hacks or massively talented chameleons capable of writinganything, but they're on their game here. Their Violence Preamble,that first 20-30 minutes of an action or horror movie that introducesus to the characters who are about to be repeatedly traumatized rightup to the credits, is compelling enough that Neeson's family drama hadme forgetting there was also an hour of kidnapping and mayhem on theway.
Watching Taken is a weird experience: once that mayhem kicksin, there are moments when it feels like your average "good guyslaying bad guys on the path to valor" thing -- and then you realize theplot is booking along, people are dying you don't expect to be dying,and though Neeson is something of a hero, he's also acting way outsidethe law; all those people he's shooting and karate chopping, badthough they may be, are actually being murdered. As always, Moreldoesn't make a big deal out of any of this. He just tells a story andtells it well.