Judd Apatow’s sausage factory specializes in frat-boy farce; Luc Besson’s prefers high-octane, testosterone-laden Eurotrash action flicks. The French entrepreneur’s latest orgy of speed and violence is “Taken.” It’s better than his usual product, but still pretty thin, formulaic gruel.
The plot, devised by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, is the purest dumb pulp. Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA man, has retired to L.A. to be close to his ditzy seventeen-year old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who lives with Bryan’s ex-wife Lenny (Famke Janssen) and her super-rich new hubby Stuart (Xander Berkeley). Bryan’s still got what it takes, professionally: on a stint as a bodyguard to a singer (Holly Valance), he rescues her from a would-be killer (presumably an obsessed fan), and in response the thankful diva agrees to help Kim with her dream to go into show biz, too.
So when Kim is kidnapped by an Albanian white-slave ring while on an ill-advised fling to Paris with her slutty pal Amanda (Katie Cassidy)—a trip he’d opposed to start with—Bryan swings into action. He’ll get advice to go slow from an erstwhile French intelligence operative (Olivier Rabourdin), whose friendship proves not as dependable as it might be, and an Albanian translator (Goran Kostic), though he disappears quickly.
But it’s our concerned daddy who does the job pretty much solo. With absurd ease he identifies the smarmy spotter who targeted the girls (Nicolas Giraud), wipes out a bevy of nasty prostitute-selling pimps, takes down Albanian baddie Marko (Arben Bajraktaraj) and his army, and sets his sights on sleazy auctioneer Patrice St. Clair (Gerard Watkins), who has a French name but an English accent, and who’s sold Kim to some lustful Arabs gorging themselves on the human goodies provided by oil money. In the final act, Bryan must rescue his kid from those nasty folk on their luxury yacht.
There’s a racist undertone to all this that reeks, but no more than the mindless mayhem that’s all “Taken” has to offer. Mills, after all, puts Jack Bauer to shame in the use of easy violence: he pumps lead without the slightest hesitation, piling up corpses without a shred of regret, and lustily tortures captives for information when that’s an option.
Still, from a purely genre point of view, the picture’s smoothly done. Besson protégé Pierre Morel does a slick job of staging the endless action sequences in familiar hyperkinetic style while avoiding the comic-book overtones of the “Transporter” movies, though even his skill can’t prevent the set-pieces from feeling like reruns. (His previous picture, “District B13,” was actually a far more interesting piece of work.) And the technical contributions, from Michel Abramowicz’s widescreen cinematography down the line, are better than the Besson norm, too—apart, that is, from the ragged rhythms favored by editor Frederic Thoraval in the action sequences, which often render them a blur.
As for Neeson, he’s suitably steely-eyed and grim, and handles the physical demands without apparent strain. But while he tries to add human dimension to his character in the quiet scenes in the first reel and with periodic sad-faced looks throughout, he’s really too good an actor to be stuck in such stuff; one can only hope the paycheck made it worthwhile. The rest of the cast doesn’t contribute much, although Rabourdin makes a reasonably good impression as the unreliable French agent. That’s certainly more than can be said of Janssen, a good actress who’s stiff and uncommunicative here, and Grace, who sometimes seems mentally deficient as the dopey daughter. All the villains come off as sufficiently loathsome to deserve everything that the hero inflicts on them.
Obviously there’s an audience out there for this sort of potboiler, though like all of Besson’s product it makes one weep over the future of European culture just as all our lousy American action movies do over our own. By his standards, though, it’s better than usual. That’s small consolation, but it’s still some.