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Published: Friday, 1/30/2009

Movie review: Taken ****

BY MICK LASALLE
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

So many movies are well-intended but poorly made that when something like Taken comes along, it's a relief, almost a joy. There's nothing lofty in the intentions of Taken. The aspiration here was to make a simple, straight-ahead action thriller. Period. But if you think that's easy, think of all the lousy action thrillers that come out in the course of a year. The level of skill that went into Taken is masterly.

This is a picture that will appeal mainly to people who love movies, and I use the word "love" advisedly. Viewers who love movies for their true soul - for their obviousness, for their manipulations, for their corniness, for their blend of high and low emotion - will take great pleasure in Taken. Others, who like movies conditionally, like a wayward lover they hope to reform, may end up hating Taken - or at least thinking of it as something stupid, ridiculous, far-fetched, and worthless.

Which reminds me of a story: When I was 6 years old, all the kids I knew used to watch the TV show Batman. We took it very, very seriously. Then, at around 7 years old, we realized it was ridiculous. Then, when we were around 9, we realized it was intended to be ridiculous, and we liked it again. At 7, we thought we were quite sophisticated, but it turned out that there were higher levels of appreciation. Taken requires that higher level of appreciation.

In terms of pace and economy, it's beautiful to behold. Director Pierre Morel, working from a script by Robert Mark Kamen (The Fifth Element) and Luc Besson, knows when to slow down and lavish time on characters, to establish the emotions and motivations that are going to give the action its urgent undercurrent. Liam Neeson plays Brian, a nice, easy-going fellow whose main mission in life, as the film starts, is to rekindle a relationship with his teenage daughter. Apparently, he was a workaholic who neglected his family and wrecked his marriage, but he's determined to keep that one flickering connection alive and thriving.

Oh, yes, and it turns out he's a former CIA agent. Of course he is. What did you think, that this movie was going to be some boring thing about a family? Wake up and smell the explosions! So what happens next? How do the screenwriters connect the dedicated-father angle with the former CIA-agent angle? Three guesses. What, you only needed one guess? That's right, the daughter is taken and borne away by an international cabal of criminals.

Anyone could devise this premise. The real measure of Taken is not in what happens but in how it happens.

Observe, for example, the intelligent construction of the abduction scene. Notice how the design of the apartment (from which the girl is taken) and the use of the victim's perspective contribute to the tension. Take note of the sheer cleverness of the filmmakers' choosing to have it all happen while the

girl is on the phone, and how that phone conversation builds the sense of dread and excitement.

It's as if the filmmakers, at every turn of the script, said, "OK, this is how it's usually done. Let's come up with a way that's better. Then let's throw that out and come up with something that's even better than that." There are different kinds of creativity. Taken evinces the creativity of expert craftsmanship.

Neeson is well cast as a soft-hearted, thoughtful, self-effacing man who is big enough to do serious damage once he gets angry. He's angry for most of the movie, which, incidentally, takes place mainly in Paris. The placement of an archetypal American character, the avenging action hero, wreaking havoc through the Paris streets has some dark appeal: No one at the tourist information booth is going to be rude to this guy.

Then it's over, and a glance at the watch shows that only 94 minutes have gone by, and yet so much has happened. I won't tell you Taken is great, but it's great fun.



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