Here’s something I wrote on January 31st, 2009. Now there’s a sequel coming.
Taken is the movie, just released in the U.S., in which the great Irish actor Liam Neeson takes on the traditional Steven Seagal role of an ex-spy who moves to Los Angeles to be closer to his teenaged daughter, only to ramp up the path of vengeance and death-bringing when she is kidnapped during a summer trip to Europe.
The first thing you will want to know, if you are a person like me who is willing to watch such a film, is that it’s a PG-13. I don’t know about you, but just about the last thing I want from a revenge picture is the knowledge that I am free to bring my favorite 13-year-old friend or relative along, that there is no scene too brutal or offensive that it could not run on USA or some other basic cable outlet at 4pm on a weekday afternoon.
That said, one thing I came to understand while watching Taken is that you really can’t argue with an audience. The critic and the aspiring filmmaker will (and must) watch this movie with different eyes, but on an audience of laymen it seems that the movie absolutely works.
To the right side of me, there was applause after every act of brutality. To the left, there was talking at the screen. And after the credits finished running, there was this conversation between two ushers:
Usher 1: “This movie is hot!”
Usher 2: “You saw it?”
Usher 1: “Yeahhh! I want to see it again!”
Usher 2: “Me too!”
The film critic (which I am not) will look at Taken and point to the incoherent gunfight sequences, the questionable performances from just about every character not played by Liam Neeson, the inconsistent orientation of the action and its arbitrary engine of suspense (96 hours!), the fact that it keeps running for ten minutes longer than it has to, and the strange feeling of xenophobia elicited throughout, considering the international pedigree of the production.
The aspiring storyteller (which I am) will take all of those things into account, but will also need to consider why an audience might be so [pun intended] taken with the movie. I have a friend who tells me, “Jonny, you think too much – no real person cares about all that film major stuff.” Honestly, he’s halfway right: there is a certain elemental appeal, particularly to a movie in this genre, in watching a convincingly badass character take two hours to whale on bad people. But I would argue that by ignoring all of those aspects that the critics will object to about a movie, the ultimate result is most likely a forgettable movie. The movies that “real people” will remember and add to their home collections and watch again in ten years, like Dirty Harry and Die Hard and more recently The Dark Knight, deliver the elemental thrills WHILE also being able to answer the logistical questions that a critic or a film major would ask.
But again, you can’t argue with an audience. So why does Taken play?
Liam Neeson has a lot to do with it. Strange to see such an acclaimed actor in a movie like this one, but a guy’s gotta work! Guess he’s just killing time (and many, many bad guys) until Spielberg calls him again. Even when he’s dressed up in a Jedi mullet, Liam Neeson is the kind of actor who takes every role seriously, in the best sense – he makes sure that he is convincing as the character he is playing, and he has the ability to make the audience care about what he cares about. That’s why, even though his daughter in the movie establishes herself pretty quickly as pretty annoying, you absolutely want him to save her. And to kill every last person who threatens her. The script is smart enough to give Neeson that improbable scene, where he talks his daughter through her initial abduction (“This is the hard part; they’re going to take you now”) and the trailer people were smart enough to put that scene in the trailer, because my man sells it all.
Lesson learned. Luckily, it won’t take nearly as much time to explain the wide [pun intended] appeal of Paul Blart, Mall Cop. To paraphrase the great Chris Farley, “Fat man fall down.” Boom! Thirty million!
P.S. In the department of things that are funny only to me:
Early on in Taken, Liam Neeson’s old company buddies are introduced. They seem interesting enough to be featured in more scenes, so naturally they all disappear after the first half hour. Anyway, one is played by the solid character actor Leland Orser (you’d recognize his face) and the other two characters are named Bernie and Casey.
Bernie… and Casey…
You’d definitely recognize his face. (Spies Like Us, Sharky’s Machine, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Revenge Of The Nerds, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka…)
So, end result, you have a brief action scene where Leland Orser is shouting out “Bernie! Casey! Bernie! Casey!” and I keep combing the screen, going “Where? Where?”
It’s as if Quentin Tarantino scripted an Abbott & Costello routine.