Somehow, the equation Liam Neeson + Kicking Ass = Awesome never entered my mind, but when I saw the preview for Taken, I wondered why no one had thought of it before now. Taken begins with Neeson, a retired secret government operative, trying to become closer to his estranged daughter, Kimmy, before she goes on a trip to Paris he doesn’t approve of, and gets kidnapped the first day there and sold into sexual slavery. The movie has its flaws, but it occupies a comfortable middle ground between crap like Bride Wars and He’s Just Not Into You and overly earnest Oscarbait featuring naked Kate Winslet, Mickey Rourke’s flesh torn with barbed wire, or botched home abortions.
Bryan (Neeson) was absent on secret missions for most of Kimmy’s childhood, and now he is overprotective - subsequently, his 17-year-old daughter acts like she is approximately 8. She gets a pony for her birthday; when she sees him at a restaurant, she yells ‘Daddy!’ and runs towards him; and he takes the liberty of pre-ordering her a peanut butter banana milkshake. Note to fathers: if you refer to your 17-year-old daughter as ‘My Kimmy,’ she is going to be the kind of snivelling, infantile, completely sheltered and incompetent person presented here. But she’ll grow up fast when she’s forced to do heroin and become a prostitute!
Taken spends a bit too much time establishing Neeson’s character: he has old buddies who want him to come out of retirement; his ex-wife, played by Famke Janssen, doesn’t trust him; he doesn’t think it’s a good idea for his daughter to go to Paris without supervision; it turns out she isn’t just going to Paris, but is following U2 on their European tour. First of all, this movie does not take place in the late 80’s, so that makes no sense. Second, Kimmy’s mother explains that ‘everyone does it’ - yeah, everyone follows a band across Europe when they are 17. Maybe everyone who lives in a mansion with hired help and a pony. Third, Neeson discovers this because he finds a map of Europe that has cities circled with dates written next to it. Let’s just ignore the preposterousness of all that, and get to the ass-kicking.
Once Kimmy is kidnapped, Neeson uses his contacts to figure out who the bad guys are based on their accents. He knows he is working in a short time frame, so he goes to Paris and starts kicking ass right away. The rest of the movie doesn’t have that much peril or suspense for the main character, but still has fun action scenes. He starts out fighting the whiny guy who picks out the women to be kidnapped in the airport, and eventually works his way up to a bad-ass Rufus Sewell looking guy who has a scary looking blade in his hand. Along the way, you should suspend critical thought, otherwise you will be scoffing at, for example, the fact that someone speaking English with an Irish accent, in Paris, could convince a bunch of bad guys that he is a French national.
Along the way, Neeson visits a brothel on the outskirts of town, inhabited with Western tourists who have been addicted to drugs in order to be more docile in their forced prostitution, and ends up at an auction where rich guys buy women for hundreds of thousands of dollars, for what seems like semi-permanent sexual slavery. These scenes bothered me a bit, not because of what they depicted, but because of the way that it was presented - as something outlandish and far-fetched, rather than the reality for an alarming number of women across the world. If the details are not accurate, the broad picture - women being trafficked and sold for sex in huge numbers - is realistic. However, Neeson seems to only be alarmed or bothered by the trafficking when it affects his daughter. He sees his daughter’s best friend, and could easily save her, but does not. At the auction, he shows no emotion until he sees his daughter, and then is outraged. Those nameless women who are going to be raped for the rest of their lives? Meh, he doesn’t know them, doesn’t care. The only time he saves one of the women is when he needs information from her. It’s bothersome.
Besides the preposterousness and the questionable depiction of trafficking, it’s an enjoyable movie. Neeson wisely underplays the dramatic moments, letting conflicting emotions play across his face and speaking in a low, menacing tone. It’s a shame that he doesn’t get more decent roles - and I won’t pretend that this is a decent role, no matter how much he elevates the material, injecting the only subtlety that can be found in the movie.
You could do worse than Taken; if the previews make you want to go see it, you probably won’t be disappointed, so long as you check your brain at the door and point out your plotholes elsewhere.