Most of the thrillers made within the past few years have been somber affairs. They are grey, de-saturated and sterile compositions, with vaguely political overtones and a penchant for upper class intrigue (think “Michael Clayton”, “The Insider”, etc.).
And then there’s Luc Besson and Pierre Morel, the masterminds behind the original “District B-13” and respective writer and director of “Taken,” the new thriller with Liam Neeson. Morel and Besson are great men in the world of what I affectionately call “Art Euro-trash.” These filmmakers like filthy, tawdry thrillers, with villains that are unambiguously evil, so much so that we don’t look askance as the hero does really, really, terrible things to them. The result is a frenetic, satisfying, though ultimately absurd film.
The girl is this case is Kim, and her father Brian (Liam Neeson) is the man who goes after her. It’s given out in the beginning (through some awkwardly-phrased dialogue) that Brian was largely absent during Kim’s childhood, and is now trying to get back in touch. He helps see Kim off to a trip to Paris with a friend, which immediately goes awry, and Kim is kidnapped by evil Albanians.
Directed by: Pierre Morel
Written by: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Starring: Liam Neeson, Olivier Rabourdin, Maggie Grace
Running time: 93 min.
Seen at: AMC Loews Boston Common
Conveniently, Brian is an ex-CIA operative, so he’s got a leg up in the situation. He quickly tracks down his daughter’s kidnappers one by one, in a series of scenes which alternate between beautifully composed shots of the Parisian slums and ill-advised forays into shaky camera techniques. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if your name is not Paul Greengrass, stay the hell away from a hand-held camera.
Neeson is strangely riveting in this film. His portrayal of Brian, especially in the beginning scenes, is akin to that of a wounded bear. Brian’s a man filled with regrets- about his treatment of his ex-wife (Famke Janssen), his absence from his daughter’s life, his work for the government. But as soon as his daughter is taken all his self-doubt goes out the window, and he is simply a killing machine with one goal. Is it plausible? No. But is interesting? Goodness, yes.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about “Taken” is it’s rating: the MPAA board inexplicably gave the film a PG-13 rating. There is a lot of leeway and randomness to the way the board makes their decisions, but I have a hard time believing that any reasonable person would give this movie anything other than an R rating. I’ve got a high threshold for this kind of stuff, but I could understand some parents getting the vapors over a few scenes. At one point we are treated to a tour of a whorehouse in a hellish construction site, where emaciated prostitutes lay prone on their beds, dead or strung out on drugs. Even leaving aside the fact that Neesan’s character kills a lot of people (par for the course), there are scenes of torture that are too brutal (and patly rationalized) for my fine sensibilities.
But there is an allure to the pursuit of unambiguous evil. It’s hard to find a thriller now that doesn’t have some moral quandary attached, some Big Questions to ask. And I have to say, it’s a lot of fun watching Neesan hunt down evil Eastern Europeans. We haven’t done that since the Cold War, and I’ve missed the firm (albeit naive) certainty of it. For once, here is a thriller that shoots first and asks questions later.