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Time gets the best of us eventually.  This maxim is borne out time and again in the Hollywood movie star factories notorious for devouring their elders; supplanting stars who gracefully give in to the natural procession of gray hair and laugh lines for the pneumatic fresh faces of untried and often untalented.  For those actors alert enough to hear the ticking of the Hollywood time bomb there lies another option - moving away from the heartthrob roles and reinventing oneself as an action star. 

Liam Neeson has carved out an unusual niche for himself in cinema, hovering between being a reluctant romantic lead {1995ís Rob Roy} and the interesting character parts he so often chose {1993ís Schindlerís List, 2004ís Kinsey, 2005ís Batman Begins}.  In Taken, Neeson has thrown over any such ambiguity and decided to take up the throne left by Harrison Ford in his Indiana Jones/ Jack Ryan-era prime.  Would that he had the steady hand of a Philip Noyce or Wolfgang Petersen to help him make the transition; instead, perhaps cannily, Neeson is working with Luc Bessonís Europacorp, prestidigitators of such mass-appeal fare as the Transporter series and various subclass Jet Li films.

The title gives us the on-dit; Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a father whose teenage daughter goes missing while on overseas holiday.  The naÔve girl has fallen into the grubby mitts of a human-trafficking ring.  The big twist in that simple setup is the fact that Mills is no ordinary father meant to sit at home wringing his hands waiting for a call from Interpol.  Mills is a retired special agent who gave up the game in order to spend time with the daughter he barely saw during his active years in US service.  His cold, calculated assessments of the situations and threats before him come from years of life-or-death experience and Mills methodically tears up the French underworld in his search for his kidnapped child a way not even a Gallic Dirty Harry could.  If nothing else, Taken is proof that whatever has befallen this country, when it comes to aggressive persuasion, one should always buy American.

Since this is a Europacorp film, there is not one fight scene that isnít edited in a blender.  The cinematography is so close up and choppy, it makes the action in the recent Transporter 3 (- which we kvetched about here for this same reason) look like itís on Paxil.  Neeson could be standing still for all the activity of the cameras and still look like Jet Li.  In actuality, there are only a handful of close combat scenes.   Millsí ultimate power emanates from his ominous presence; heís a threat before he lifts a finger.  Millsí preternaturally calm statement of intent to the thug who stole his child while Mills could do naught but listen helplessly over the phone sends chills down the arms.  His surgeon-like assessment and dispatch of numerous, ever-scummier bad guys is equal parts John Wayne, MacGyver and Rambo.  The deceptively laid-back Bryan Mills is a perfect fit for Neeson, who is svelte and taut-looking under his cool 3-quarter black leather jacket.  Itís a neat transition to see the disheveled, neutrals-clad father suit up in casual black Ninja-wear once his spy skills are reactivated.  The audience first feels for Mills in his introduction as a doting absentee father that canít seem to put a foot right in his efforts to connect with his little girl.  His family has moved on without him:  His only references to his daughterís interests are from her childhood.  Millsí bitter ex-wife flexes her power over their child at every opportunity.  Her marriage to a wealthy milquetoast rubs Millsí nose in his loss of their life together.  Our first glimpses of exactly what Millsí life was come from a sad bachelorsí poker game with his old black-ops crew and later when the opportunity to make some quick cash playing bodyguard to a Britney-esque pop star goes cinematically wrong.  While itís great to see Neeson attack this new genre, viewers canít shake the feeling of his being so much better than his relatively low-rent surroundings.  Itís Neesonís talent and magnetism that makes Mills more than a cardboard shell and lifts the material beyond the cookie cutter Europacorp actioner Taken surely would have been with another actor. 

There are strange threads throughout the film that never quite connect, like Millsí CSI work in the flat where his daughter was snatched, and the lack of logic in Mills going the operation solo when the filmmakers went through the trouble of introducing his devoted klatsch of spy buddies.  I would have loved more from the fabulous Famke Janssen than just playing the evil ex-wife.  I also would like to know if the person who wrote the character of Kim Mills, had interacted with an actual teenager since 1985.  As Millsí imperiled daughter, an unrecognisable Maggie Grace from Lost gallumphs around frenetically like an electrocuted pony trying to convince us that sheís seventeen.  Her Ritalin-starved behaviour and clothing choices made me wonder if she hadnít galloped off a short bus.  Graceís woeful inadequacies are absorbed by the creepiness of her characterís fate in the film, being realistically duped by the cute stranger at the airport her first time on her own in a foreign country.  After watching Taken, I shall henceforth be fearful not only of Greeks bearing gifts, but Albanians bearing nightclub invitations.

For Liam Neeson, Taken is a safe bet that definitely will cross over to a much broader audience, who, if not turning up for Neesonís thespian cred, will eat up the smooth and lethal Bryan Mills with a spoon.  There are all the standard Europacorp touches; the martial-arts flirtation, Parisian backdrop, gunplay and car chases (- They must have a deal with Audi.) guaranteed to fill the cineplex on a slow weekend.  Is the mindlessly enjoyable, popcorn-chomping Taken the best action film he could have made?  Certainly not; but in Bryan Mills, Neeson has chosen a character that suits his broody intensity perfectly and makes for a seamless transition for his role as heir to the throne of Harrison Ford Ė or at least Bruce Willis.

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

January 30th, 2009

 

 

 

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(Courtesy of 

20th Century Fox)

 

 

 

 

 

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