TakenDirected by Pierre MorelStarring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Nicolas Giraud and Famke JanssenRated PG-13*6*Goes well with: Man on Fire, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Punisher
Sometimes it's best just to be up front about things. Like Bryan Mills, Liam Neeson's character in Taken. He's a former CIA op who took early retirement to be closer to his dippy daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, probably wondering why she ever left Lost). He's not exactly thrilled about his lifestyle, but his time in the Company left him with a certain skill set that allows him to track and seriously fuck up anyone who might try to harm Kim—like, say, a group of Albanian sex slavers who kidnap her and her girlfriend about 20 minutes after they set foot in Paris.
Yeah, that's pretty much it, and Taken doesn't pretend to be anything more. You might think Neeson's a little long in the tooth to be playing such a bad-ass, and you might be surprised that he's in a movie that's this brutal, but Taken succeeds because it's sharply directed by Pierre Morel and because it's completely over-the-top.
Mills infiltrates with none of the refinement of James Bond, kills with considerably less panache than Jason Bourne, tortures far more aggressively than Lost's Sayid and leaves the wisecracks to John McClane. Basically, he goes from place to place, tracking his daughter and fucking up anyone or anything that stands in his way, using only his powers of deduction, disguise and utter violent nastiness. He's so efficient that when one of his old CIA buddies lets him know that he only has 96 hours to find his daughter, he's the only one who seems worried about it—the rest of us know he'll be done with plenty of time to spare. Seriously, this is a gnarly movie. It's not for the faint of heart, and it's totally ridiculous; it isn't necessarily good, but it is kind of awesome.
Now, even though everything in Taken is right out there in front of you, there is something else going on here. Of course, the obvious sentiment is that this is just another movie in which the lone American hero wades in and kills everyone of a different nationality. The Albanians are gangsters, the Arabs are pimps, the French are corrupt and compliant and Mills dives in, armed only with viciousness, a father's love for his daughter, years of guilt over being an absent parent and whatever firearms he can take from dead bad guys. But here's the thing: Neeson's an Irishman. Morel and the film's recognizable producer, Luc Besson, are Frenchmen. And, really, that's the fascinating thing about Taken, and the part of the film that isn't up front at all. This is a movie about what the rest of the world thinks Americans think about themselves. Mills believes the world is divided into two halves, one made up of good, decent people, the other a cesspool of swarthy Morlocks that occasionally reach up to the surface to snatch some fair-skinned, blue-eyed Eloi women. There's no in between—you're either good or you're evil. Yes, there's a new Decider in office, but we all know what we've been doing to evildoers the last eight years—they get the gift of all the righteous vengeance our baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet society can deliver.
That's where Taken differs from the action films of the 1980s, in which Americans killed olive-skinned bad guys without pretense. When Americans make films about Americans, the good guys succeed because they're generally clever and noble, and they rise above the bad guys. But Bryan Mills, while clever, also savagely tortures people. He's happy to maim innocent bystanders to get the information he needs. He's not interested in the greater good and behaves with no subtlety whatsoever. He's not just an ugly American; he's an angry weapon of mass destruction aimed at anyone he thinks has harmed him. It's like he's finally using his powers of evil for good, except that the way he goes about it is so evil that sometimes it's hard to take.
But that's how the rest of the world sees us these days: America, love it or stay out of its way.