For the past several years, there has been a tug-of-war in the world of action films. Some, like the Jason Bourne and recent James Bond movies, have sought to establish moodier, more introspective heroes who face realistic dilemmas in the midst of the usual shooting and car chases. Others, like Shoot 'em Up, Crank, and The Transporter, have gone the other way, decreasing characterization to almost nothing and focusing entirely on over-the-top action. Both philosophies are viable; the only problem is when a film tries to have it both ways, like Quantum of Solace and Transporter 3 did.
It's very pleasing, then, that after playing nearly everywhere else in the world, the French-produced (but English-language) Taken has finally come to American shores, where it is welcome as a delightfully dizzying balm to soothe the pain inflicted by recent action films that have failed to deliver. It subscribes to the less-talk-more-rock school of thought, intentionally free of nuance but overbrimming with relentless, efficient, energetic mayhem. It plays out like a season of 24, crammed into 90 minutes.
Our Jack Bauer is named Bryan Mills, played by Liam Neeson -- and yes, they found a way to make Oskar Schindler into an action hero. Mills used to be a CIA operative, but he quit and moved to Los Angeles to be closer to his teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), who lives there with her mother (Famke Janssen) and filthy-rich stepfather (Xander Berkeley). Mills regrets letting his work ruin his family life, and he wants to make up for lost time.
Just after turning 17, Kim and her best friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) take a trip to Paris, where bad things happen to them at the hands of a ring of Albanian flesh-traders. (Did they learn nothing from Hostel?) Mills must rush to France to save the day, having been helpfully informed by his CIA contacts that he probably has just 96 hours before Kim and Amanda are gone forever. There's nothing like a deadline to light a fire under a guy -- just ask Jack Bauer. (Coincidentally, Jack's daughter is also named Kim, and Xander Berkeley appeared in the first two seasons of 24. Hmm.)
Mills is resourceful, clever, and utterly ruthless. He's a master of hand-to-hand combat and can easily anticipate his opponents' next several moves. If he has qualms about employing brutal tactics to extract information from villains, he does not voice them. Besides, he isn't acting on behalf of the government anymore -- he's acting as a man trying to save his daughter's life. Under those circumstances, who among us wouldn't non-fatally shoot an innocent woman as a means of making her husband cooperate? (Wait, didn't Jack Bauer do that once, too?!)
Directed by Pierre Morel, who made the similarly giddy District B13, and written by Transporter duo Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, Taken sets up a dire situation, establishes that the butt-kicking hero is more than capable of resolving it, then lets us thrill at seeing this accomplished. That our reactions are somewhat Pavlovian -- hero says cool things; audience cheers -- is the sort of thing that would only be pointed out by a killjoy. These are matters of black-and-white, with clearly defined heroes and villains, and there's nothing wrong with seeing the good guys win every now and then.