March 18, 2009
Seven weeks into its US run, Taken is still holding strong in the box office top five. It has seen less than a 10% drop from week to week for most of that time, which you’ll know is very unusual if you keep up with box office trends (as I’m sure you all do). At close to $127 million in domestic grosses, it is the second-highest grossing film of the year so far (and it’s outpacing the highest grossing, Paul Blart: Mall Cop). Now it most definitely won’t stay that way, and it’s true that this time of year is generally thin on big releases, but it still says something about the cultural draw of the film. Made for around $40 million, this is a huge coup for a moderately budgeted film starring an unlikely action hero. I really shouldn’t play the armchair culture pundit, asking the questions about why this film seems to resonate so well in America and what that says about the country as a whole, but I can’t help myself. I’m probably over-thinking a mindless movie, but after watching it, questions were raised.
Liam Neeson plays Brian Mills, an ex-CIA operative who has chosen early retirement to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace, bizarrely looking five years younger than she did five years ago on Lost). Twenty minutes of clunky, clunky, clunky exposition let us know that Mills is overprotective to the point of paranoia (or is he??), his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) is remarried to an insanely rich guy (Xander Berkeley), and his daughter is very, very flakey. After a completely unbelievable barbecue scene with his ex-CIA buddies, Mills gets convinced to earn some extra cash by acting as a bodyguard for a pop star (Holly Valance, broadening her acting range significantly by playing someone successful). When a nonsensical fan riot breaks out, Mills displays his amazing fighting skills while earning the appreciation of the pop star in a plot development that surely won’t pay off later.
Kim, having just turned 17, needs her father’s permission to go to Paris with her friend. Mills initially refuses, adamant that Paris (and, by extension, anywhere outside of the US) is completely unsafe for a teenager. After exhortations to lighten up on the paranoia by the ex-wife, he relents. It takes Kim and her friend about 10 minutes from landing in the city of love to find a way to prove her father right about the evil outside world, and before you can say “sacré bleu”, they’ve been kidnapped by human traffickers. Soon after being told he has exactly 96 hours to get her back, Mills is in France and hot on the trail of Albanian gangsters, and tearing up the city in the process.
As an action film, it is moderately successful in a sub-Bourne kind of way. Mills meets a series of unrepentant bastards and dispatches them one after the other without hesitation. There are car chases, gunfights, and hand-to-hand combat galore. The first thirty minutes aside, it moves along at a brisk pace, even if the editing is occasionally too fast to properly orientate the viewer in what’s going on. Neeson is, unsurprisingly, the best thing about the film. He doesn’t add much depth, if such a thing were possible here, but he has an admirable intensity and drive. Every other role is pretty thankless, though again, kudos to Maggie Grace for playing a convincing 17-year old.
So far, so mediocre. But as I said, the content raised some questions. The film is rather disturbing on two fronts. The first is the use of the horrors of human trafficking, which it wants to work as justification for the killing, the torture, and whatever else has to be done, but instead leaves a really nasty taste in the mouth. Director Pierre Morel doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat the awful conditions the kidnapped girls are forced to live in. Girls are prostituted in shacks at construction sites; others are left dead in their beds from overdoses of the forced heroin injections. This is not to say he should ignore them, but depicting the horrors of the sex slave trade to fuel a one-dimensional action thriller is nothing short of exploitation, and as the issue is a very serious and widespread one, this is really unforgivable.
The other disturbing aspect is the one that makes me seriously question why this film is so popular in the US, and in a way it ties in with the first point. The traffickers are mostly Albanian, they sell their victims to Arab Sheiks, and all of this allowed by the corrupt French police force. Basically, it’s saying that Strong American Men need to take action to clean up the disgusting immorality of the rest of the world, or else foreigners will kidnap and rape our women. It’s the kind of adolescent, small-minded xenophobic fantasy that only the most stereotypical of backwards, isolationist morons would champion. The film was co-written by French action impresario Luc Besson and produced by his company, which makes me think that, at best, he innocently thought it would be a fun action romp and he has no moral compass whatsoever, and at worst, it would really appeal to the American racist market, “Change” be damned. Either way, something is wrong here.
I might be being unfair, but the film does feature a healthy dose of neo-con paranoia and provides a laundry list of rationalizations for some of the right-wing tendencies that have coloured a certain thread of American politics for years now. Torture, killing, and ignoring the laws of a sovereign nation are all justified to accomplish the simple mission of saving white Americans. There’s even an absurd argument for abstinence thrown in for good measure. In the world-view of Taken, other countries/cultures/religions care about nothing but money and indulging their most depraved desires, and all that paranoia about foreigners is completely justified. Of course, all this could just be coincidence, and people might have really just wanted a 90-minute escapist fantasy for the cold winter nights. Regardless of whether I am reading far too much into it, Taken is a stomach churning and wholly unpleasant experience, especially considering it has one of the most ridiculous and insensitive endings in recent memory.
Instead of Taken, why not see…
David Mamet’s 2004 thriller Spartan manages to feature a young, white American girl being kidnapped by human traffickers without ever feeling exploitative. Val Kilmer plays Scott, a government operative tasked with helping retrieve the President’s daughter, who was lost by her secret service handler and kidnapped in Boston. From this springs a labyrinth plot that includes seemingly dead-end leads, double crosses, and cover ups.
One crucial difference between the handling of the sex trade in Taken and Spartan is tone. Yes, it deals with an abhorrent and real life problem, but it is never really the focus. The emotional arc comes from the Scott character and the tension he feels between following orders as he’s always done and his own code of ethics. It deals with notions of honour and what that means in a corrupt world, a theme Mamet likes to revisit again and again. The sex trade is never used to elicit an emotional response from the audience; Mamet is wise enough to know exploring that issue in the context of a thriller leads to some very difficult and possibly insensitive places. There are subtexts at play here, but it knows it is, on the surface, a thriller, and must function accordingly. And it is a very good thriller. It trusts its audience, it’s economically made, and it is full of wonderful Mamet dialogue:
“In the city, there is always a reflection, in the forest a sound.”
“What about the desert?”
“You don’t wanna go to the desert.”
Lines like those are working on several levels, as we find out through the course of the film. Taken would rather give us straightforward (and forced) exposition so we know where everyone is and what they stand for, preferring to hold our hands instead of letting us discover the film on our own. Spartan is not Mamet’s best work, but his middle range is the highest form of art when put next to the dim-witted and offensive Taken.