Taken (2008), which I stumbled on while flipping channels after football last night, is that individual. Warning: mild plot spoilers follow. Liam Neeson plays Brian Mills, a former CIA spy with a mind so robotic and unsympathetic, he makes Schwarzenegger’s Terminator seem like Christopher Robin from Winnie the Pooh. As he hears his daughter’s violent kidnapping over the phone, he calmly requests she describe various physical characteristics of the assailants, before dutifully reciting his resume of skills to the kidnappers. He then proceeds to slay nearly everyone in his path, each victim the result of a logical calculation. This man stands in front of an elevator, which will likely lead to another man who knows my daughter’s whereabouts. Providing a phony excuse will take two minutes to explain, but killing him will take 20 seconds. *performs impossibly swift, CIA-chop-kill-maneuver*
Like the savagely honest friend advising you on a decision, the inherent purity of this formula largely works. After a stuttering first 30 minutes, the movie achieves and maintains an impressive momentum, driven tirelessly by Neeson, with whom we breathlessly try to keep pace. Neeson plays Mills with an intense, almost unbelievable focus, his blazing blue eyes always trained on his next target, even as minor characters (whether his wife, low-level goons, or the French police) shout, wave, and shoot all around him. Later, after copious falls and gunshot wounds, Mills lurches forward, his faltering frame kept standing by sheer determination. Neeson blends bodily weakness and mental resolve with every one of Mills’ steps, and commands the screen as he staggers, undeterred, toward his goal.
But something is missing here. We see dozens of women imprisoned, enslaved in a world of sex and drugs, all of which Mills blows by without hesitation. He does save one woman, but with the sole motivation of obtaining another clue toward finding his own daughter. He shoots another man’s innocent wife at a dinner table to make a point, never mind the children sleeping just one room away. Most of these actions can be explained by Mills’ purity of purpose, but director Pierre Morel (The Transporter) never lingers on any of them. Through quick cuts and flashy action sequences, he gives us no reason—nor time—to do anything but cheer Mills in his quest.
Compare this to Man on Fire (Denzel Washington), a very similar film, but one that makes us sit with the bad guys, listen to their pleading, and hear about their lives. Taken doesn’t have time for this nonsense, and although we likely gain in raw pounds per entertainment, we lose a bit of humanity as well.
To be fair, we do get a bit of popcorn-cheap complexity, as Mills' past life has estranged him from his daughter. Despite their strained relationship, he’s THIS determined to save her! It’s a good effort, but Morel doesn’t properly caress this backstory. Spoiler: end-of-film details follow. Hours after being rescued from the ordeal, Mills’ daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace, sprightly, one-note) merrily skips to hug her mom, all smiles. Never mind she’s just been forcibly kidnapped, drugged, and incarcerated, or that her best friend has been murdered.
Overall, the nonstop adrenaline action and Neeson’s haggard determination make this a worthy action flick, but at the cost of nuance and profundity. Perhaps I’m taking the movie too seriously: it’s a blockbuster thriller, not an Oscar nominee. But then again, I’m just being honest.