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January 27, 2009


Vigilante Cartoon
Luc Besson's Death Wish
By Cole Smithey

Taken The ever-capable Liam Neeson takes a well-earned payday as retired CIA-agent Bryan Mills whose 17-year-old daughter is kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers when she runs off to Paris with her best friend to follow a U2 tour. Hamfisted screenwriting over-establishes Mills's desperation at winning his daughter's affection before he gets to use his specialized set of spy skills that will impose a hearty body-count on his rescue and revenge quest around Paris. French cottage film industry maverick Luc Besson co-produced and co-wrote the project that takes special pleasure in spicing up violent surprises for a revenge fantasy that's spelled out in capital letters. Perhaps the biggest revelation is Liam Neeson's impact as a 55-year-old super spy whose physicality is undiminished in spite of his age. Mills has no ethics about torturing bad guys before leaving them to die an agonizing death or about hurting innocent bystanders in the interest of getting his way. Leave your brain at the door to enjoy this smash-and-grab spree of fast-twitch carnage.

Owing its existence to a revenge genre of vigilante justice that morphed from Westerns to urban retribution stories, notably in 1974 when Charles Bronson took the law into his own hands in Michael Winner's "Death Wish," "Taken" is quick to send the hero on a body count mission. The problem is that the screenwriters haven't a clue about how to establish a believable emotional connection for Neeson's character. Bryan Mills might be a wiz at using technology to hotwire a cell phone to capture crucial bits of telling information, but he has a ridiculously hard time picking out the right karaoke machine for his daughter Kim's (Maggie Grace) birthday--she wants to be a singer. The movie gets off to a limping start with tired exposition about Bryan's fawning obsession over creating a closer relationship with Kim, in spite of his uneasy relationship with his remarried ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), that it makes him an incredulous character. He quit his job as an agent in order to pursue his status as an outsider father. Worse yet is Bryan's participation on a freelance bodyguard job for a female pop singer named Sheera (Holly Vance) at a concert where a knife-wielding attacker conveniently waits in the shadows backstage.

"Taken" announces its predisposition as a systematic get-out-the-way thriller when Mills arrives in Paris only to witness the sudden accidental death of the first suspect he pursues. His methods take on a radical approach when he stabs his foreign victim in the thighs with a couple of 20-penny nails that he connects to the Paris electricity grid. The extreme torture method proves effective in extracting the desired information, and sends the exterminating angel onto his next dispatch. The film's most alienating moment comes when Mills purposefully shoots the innocent wife of French former intel agent Jean-Claude (well-played by Olivier Rabourdin) while sitting at the man's dinner table. If there was any doubt about Mills's tenuous grasp on reality, the scene explodes his character's persona into a cartoon invention not far removed from Michael Madsen's Mr. Blonde in "Reservoir Dogs."

The film's fetishistic aspirations hit their mark in the imagined elite atmosphere of a private auction mansion where tuxedoed Arab clients bid up to a half million dollars for virginal girls. Liam Neeson's regal athleticism elevates the exploitation trappings into a guilt-free realm of spectacle violence where every new notch on his belt is a step closer to a better world, at least for Bryan Mills and his precious daughter. But it's not a viewpoint Jean-Claude's wife could ever share.

(20th Century Fox) Rated PG-13. 91 mins. (C+)


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