Film Review: Taken

This French-directed English-language film squanders a fun genre—the kidnapping thriller—in favor of an exceedingly grim and insipid exercise in globetrotting sadism.

Tales of kidnapping almost always have a lurid pull, no matter how mediocre the telling. Whose pulse isn’t quickened by the agonizing pressure to find the victim before it’s too late? Or, even better, by the insidious possibility that someone close to the victim might be behind it all? In other words, kidnapping movies can be pretty good even when they’re pretty bad.

But Taken, the new English-language thriller from French director Pierre Morel (District B13), is such a toxic combination of grim and silly that I alternately yawned and scoffed my way through its admittedly merciful 90-minute running time. Maybe it was the film’s first chapter, in which divorced former spy Bryan Mills, played by Liam Neeson (begging the question: Why, Liam? Why?), agonizes over whether to allow his teenage daughter Kim to go to Paris with a friend for spring break. These scenes are marred by two things from which the movie never really recovers: dialogue so stuffed and stilted with background information that the characters sound like walking, talking storyboard cards; and a fatally bad performance by Maggie Grace (of “Lost” fame), who, as Neeson’s daughter, gallops around like a colt on speed in a weirdly Method-y attempt to appear authentic as someone nine years her junior.

At least this part of the movie has some (unintentional) humor. I was hoping that the next section, in which Kim is kidnapped and forced into a sex-trade ring (Dad should have known better, right?), would be swift and full of sharply directed action. Oops. After a rather effective abduction sequence is almost sunk by some laughable dialogue and drama-camp-worthy sobbing from Grace, Mills travels to Paris and proceeds to shoot at pretty much anything that blinks in an effort to find his daughter and make the perps pay. Morel’s set-pieces are rapidly paced and often start with a burst of violence that grabs you by the throat, but he loses you in the execution. He seems to be aiming for the same brutal, staccato style that Paul Greengrass nearly perfected in the third Jason Bourne film, but Taken’s fight and chase scenes are so incoherently choreographed that you can barely tell who’s fighting or chasing whom.

Greengrass brought a thrilling aesthetic purism and a formal boldness to the action in The Bourne Ultimatum, but also a thematic purpose. Running and killing made up the essence of who Jason Bourne was and how he lived, but this was a fact the character wrestled with; the fragmented visual style was a direct reflection of an identity fragmented by a numbingly violent lifestyle. In Taken, though, the violence is both sadistic and weightless. Mills’ past as a spy and his relationship with his family are both so blandly conceived, so laden with clichés, that his take-no-prisoners quest to free his daughter comes off as perfunctory and dramatically empty.

Most bothersome of all, especially given the genre, is the total absence of any pleasure in the filmmaking. Part of the juice of kidnapping movies comes from being toyed with; beyond the false leads and the close calls, there is fun to be had with ebbs and flows in rhythm and with tonal swings that distract us from danger only to set us up for surprises. But Taken is relentlessly blunt in the worst sense of the word: There’s no gamesmanship here—not in the plot, which turns out to be practically devoid of any genuine jolt or twist, nor in the characters, who (apart from one very predictable exception) reveal no shifts in motive and conceal no hidden dimensions. As if that weren’t galling enough, the last 30 minutes of the film devolve into a series of redundant confrontations, each one defined by an ethnic stereotype (Those immoral Albanians! Those sleazy, rich Arabs!). The most striking realization to be had while watching Taken—and it’s not a particularly hard one to come by—is that the real hostage in this mess is you.