Is Liam Neeson being TAKEN too much for granted?
Liam Neeson is a funny old one. His report card includes some truly monumental cinematic events- SCHINDLERS LIST, THE PHANTOM MENACE, ROB ROY even GANGS OF NEW YORK (even if they werent all exactly excellent). If Neeson is not the greatest living British actor, he is not far away- an accolade that will surely swing massively on the critical reception of LINCOLN when it finally hits our scenes. Whether TAKEN is the movie to take him into such a crucial time in his career is a matter for debate- with a serious amount of criticism calling his choice of this movie ill-conceived at best. I think we are all too used to him playing the kind of character who demands his own name in the title of the film- MICHAEL COLLINS, KINSEY, ROB ROY, and LINCOLN (eventually). But TAKEN is not that bad- its just a bit of a departure from the majority of Neesons recent roles; he is usually the embodiment of composure, he exudes a regality and dignity that made him the obvious choice for Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, and inspired Michael Bay to encourage the TRANSFORMERS animators to base Optimus Primes movements on his body language. So why would he apparently go against type and play a tortured mercenary type, fighting hordes of stereotypical Eastern European villains to save his daughter from a life in enforced prostitution? Well they do say diversity is the spice of life. Not just that though: on paper TAKEN must have been a pretty good prospect- with the sort of politicised and emotive substance a lead man dreams of and helmed by what must surely be THE guilty pleasure team-up: Pierre Morel and Luc Besson (previously together on TRANSPORTER and UNLEASHED among others). What frustrates me slightly about TAKEN is the at times woeful dialogue- heavily strewn with the type of cliché that is an unfortunate ever-present with a certain type of action movie. This is especially frustrating seeing as though TAKEN obviously has aspirations above such a genre- the frenetic cinematography style is very BOURNE-esque, and the story is more complex than the usual action stereotypes actually demand. In fact the plot and its political intricacies are the main reason TAKEN doesnt completely bomb in my eyes- that and the type of pathos-laden performance we have come to expect from Mr Neeson- a performance that is okay very much despite the words he has been given to work with. Also, despite the obvious attempts to cater to a more refined action-movie fan, TAKEN dangerously hangs onto aged ideas that dont deserve screen time in anything but spoofs- most notably the introduction of the slutty, clearly dead-meat best friend character. She plays no part in the film other than being hideously amoral, deciding to fuck a Frenchman on the strength of a rumour that they do it best, and then later turns up all heroined to death in a mucky French hovel. There is no place for this sloppy cinema- and Luc Besson should know better. A lot of the criticism aimed at TAKEN focuses somewhat unimaginatively upon the pseudo-racist portrayals of the villains of the piece- both the rough Albanian gangsters and the decadent and otherworldly Arab businessmen. While I agree that Hollywood is often guilty of unforgiveable stereotyping- if its not a Russian red, its amoral Arabians, or even the quintessential venomous Brit- TAKEN cannot really have the same criticism aimed at it. The simple fact of the matter is that there is a sickening reality not far from the events of the film, and the unavoidable truth of sex-trafficking is that it is a horrifying symptom of the illegal immigration culture. Besides, the unbridled anger of the film isnt just directed towards Eastern Europeans or Arabs- St Clair is the epitome of Western decadence, Jean-Claude the height of French squirming cowardice, and both are subject to Neesons vengeance. His violence even takes in a stabby fan at a Diva (Holly Valance finding it extremely difficult to talk let alone act) concert, and hes more than likely an American- there is no difference in ferocity between this man and those who seek to kill him in France: the issue is not race, it is justice. You also have to consider the motives of the men in charge of the film in line with their backgrounds, in creating a film that some have suggested is completely anti-European. Is it, as Ive seen suggested by an EMPIRE reviewer, a conscious attempt by Besson and Morel to manipulating US prejudices in the name of mindless entertainment? Or is that a fucking ridiculous thing to say- implying xenophobia- when the film is necessarily set in Europe, because of the more obvious existence of trafficking there? If Mills was in France fighting a bunch of Americans surely the plot would need to be too complex and thus unintelligent? And his assertion that he would tear down the Eiffel Tower to find his daughter is neither a reflection of the Frenchmens personal hatred, or of a general anti-French tone, it is merely a hyperbolic expression, reflecting the enormity of his vengeance with a recognisably massive object relevant to where he is. Heaven forbid that Besson and Morel be accused of any kind of malignant racism towards the Albanian immigrants who have invaded their motherland. In fact, despite not wanting to tire the comparison, I think TAKEN is an obtuse love-note to Paris, in the same way that that BOURNE car chase is- its not Paris at its most beautiful, but its a fantastic bit of cinema devoted to the city. TAKEN takes a slightly different approach, showing the grimy underbelly- the trafficking, the corruption and the dirty back streets, juxtaposed against the more beautiful sights, only fleeting in their appearance. We get a hint of what Paris should be- what it could be again if it werent for the corruption and the evil. At the end of the day, the lone mercenary film does not work if there is not a recognisable villainous group- necessarily in high numbers to accelerate the gravity of the situation. And the use of primarily foreign villains is merely a symptom of our fascination with Otherness- if a villainous force shares too similar characteristic with its counter-point, the dynamic between them is rendered redundant. Difference is a quintessential and necessary element of conflict. The reason I use the term Otherness, and attempt to diffuse the racial tones of criticism aimed at the film, is that I despair at such easy controversy. There is no fetishising of the Albanians nor the Arabians Otherness- they are not grotesques (although the Arabian businessman at the end is a Hutt of a fellow, his is a message against decadence not race) as one would expect with a strictly racist text. They are simply different; and I for one dont think the film would work (even in its slightly pained state) without that element. More criminal than any perceived racism is the performance of Maggie Grace- a 25 year old playing a girl of 17 in a weird accidental homage to the middle-aged teenagers of BEVERLEY HILLS 90210 and DAWSONS CREEK. And as if confirmation was needed that teenagers dont really exist in the film universe of TAKEN, she and Dead-Meat-Best-Friend Amanda are planning on following an improbable rock band around Europe on tour. So what rock band would a 17 year old and a 19 year old choose to follow- The Used? My Chemical Romance? Alexisonfire? No, fucking U2- every dads favourite band. Okay, so I admit its not that hard to believe Grace as a 17 year old- whats more unbelievable is her acting method, which seems to involve running everywhere like shes suffered some kind of head trauma- arms flailing, legs all over the shop like Phoebe in FRIENDS. I just found it extremely difficult to believe in her, and whats more her dynamic with Liam Neeson didnt work at all as far as Im concerned- he poured himself into the relationship, and you have to wonder why he cared all that much. Its obvious Famke Janssen- ex-wife of Neeson, and mother of the lady-child- has the right idea- having lost all interest in her daughters personal safety, actively encouraging her to follow U2 around Europe at such a tender age. Despite the problems, there are some redeeming factors (as always I look for the diamond in the charcoal); the ultra-realistic violence (another BOURNE mimic) is cringingly good. The moment where sleazy Parisian spotter Peter gets hit by a truck is painfully realistic, so much so that you wonder whether actor Nicolas Giraud will be appearing in anything soon. Likewise the infamous torture scene is solid-gold cinema, provided you ignore the troublesome undertones. There is a lot in TAKEN that could make it become a guilty pleasure- the character Bryan Mills is an intriguing one, and would work in follow-ups and prequels should the occasion arise, because of his history as a government sanctioned preventer, and also the complexities that obviously attracted Neeson to the role. And you know what, I would watch them: cut the shit other family members (and the who-gives-a-shit-about-you appearance of Xander Berkeley), hire someone who can script it, and throw in a little more political intrigue and I fully believe BOURNE could have a run for his money as the cinematic Angel of Vengeance. Perhaps kill his entire family and have him a simmering loner like LEON as well- hang on Im just off to ring Luc Besson Far and away it is Liam Neeson who stands out (in all honesty he has no competition from any other member of the cast) as Ive said, but his performance pretty much confirms that this role is a little below him. Whether this would be the case if the script were better, or if it would be more suitable if he was in other situations He does pathos better than most- I challenge anyone to watch LOVE ACTUALLY and not feel the poignancy of his grief- which adds a genuine emotional weight to his portrayal of Bryan Mills as a formerly absent father trying to make amends. And perhaps that sub-plot would have made a good Neeson movie, especially considering his excellent paternal turn in NELL- its when you introduce the slightly psychotic former government weapon element to the character that it all becomes a little bit too un-Neeson. His righteous anger is believable; thanks to his ability to make the audience believe his pain and moral outrage- but he simply isnt enough of a tightly coiled spring- something that someone with a little less emotional intelligence might offer in the role. I could perhaps have seen Bruce Willis as Bryan Mills- and in fact I sort of already have thanks to HOSTAGE- or even Jason Staitham, especially with the Besson/Morel link, but Neeson? Perhaps Besson and co-writer Robert Mark Kamen tried to forefront Mills normality- hence the mundane name- in order to highlight the dichotomy of his character- a desire to be a good father coupled with his explosive past. Or perhaps Im writing a complexity into a character that isnt necessarily there in the vain hope of explaining dear old Liams involvement. When it comes to it, I can recognise a problem in myself that forbids me from really believing Neeson as Bryan Mills- I was very much taken in by the PHANTOM MENACE fever that struck so many years ago, and on being ultimately disappointed I hung on dearly to the cool aspects of the film to get me through the sense of loss. Chief among those cool little elements were Darth Maul (of course) and Neesons Qui-Gon Jinn (I was absolutely appalled that an accident stopped his return in EPISODE III); who was just elegance and grace personified. So to see him here abandoning his knowledge of the Force and resorting to the kind of unbridled violence that would make Darth Vader weep will always be a difficult pill to swallow. Extras In all honesty, a little poor: a few behind the scenes featurettes that dont deserve much mention- the usual Making Of, which never really goes beyond being par for the course, an Avant Premiere and six Inside Action side by side comparison segments. Yawn. When TROPIC THUNDER comes out and has such ridiculously good extra features there is no excuse for normalcy in the extras field. The whole experience of buying a DVD is surely not just to provide a personal copy of a film- it should be a film experience, and crucially one that differs from just going to the cinema. Surely if we are expected to fork out £12 and upwards we should expect something extra.