Cinemalphabet: T is for Taken (2008)
I have carried a slow burning torch for Liam Neeson since the late 80s when I first spied him as the disabled homeless man Carl falsely accused of murder (this reveals no spoilers about the film) in the 1987 stellar thriller Suspect, which starred CHER!!! Cher should have snagged her Oscar for THIS role! In addition, I have often wondered why Neeson’s brilliant and nuanced performance of a disable person – in a year which also saw the release of Marlee Matlin’s tour-de-force in Children of a Lesser God was not recognized by the Oscars. Thankfully, Matlin’s was. The studied vulnerability that characterizes most Neeson performances – Save Batman Begins has long made him a fave, coupled with the fact he never bothers cultivating appropriate accents for any character he plays! It takes a lot of cheek to rock Alfred Kinney or Hannibal with a lovely Irish lilt.
I’ll admit to being less than impressed with Neeson’s work in Batman Begins, particularly because I didn’t think he was the right actor for the role. Sure, the role required gravitas and Neeson has it to boot, but somehow I was left unsatisfied. At the time I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong; Neeson was quite entertaining. I really like seeing male actors north of 6’2 not playing lumbering lugs or portrayed as devoid of gracefulness. Some of it might have been the bizarre Bond Villain framing of the character, which definitely makes Neeson a front runner (in my book) for a smashing Bond Villain, but left a lot to be desired in Batman Begins. In any case, while I can’t immediately think of actor who I might have liked better, at the time Neeson didn’t do it for me in that role.
What did, however, do it for me was Neeson as an action hero. Why it took Hollywood so long to pair this actor with the right action vehicle is beyond me. The way Neeson can lock his jaw into steely resolve and display more pathos by simply straining his neck muscles than most actors can with their entire body makes him action hero worthy in my book. And I’ll be honest, I stayed away from Taken due to some valid criticism I’d read about its framing of white femininity as solely worthy of saving and the films depiction of non white men as slavishly and sinisterly addicted to that sweet, sweet, white girl meat. And seriously, how many films do we need with that kind of foolishness?
That said, after the viewing film (which um, I FUCKING LOVE LIKE WHOA, while noting the problematic elements, which are chiefly thematic in nature) I came away feeling a bit differently about the way in which white femininity is presented and not sold on the entirety of criticism, which had kept me away. Here are my thoughts (briefly) on the whiteness problem: it’s a problem, it’s wholly unnecessary to the successful execution of the film’s story and I wholeheartedly support anyone who would side-eye the film for it. I have given this film a lot of thought with the regard to this problem and at the same time, I will admit, that what I found equally frustrating is how every single female in the film is painted with the same “chucklehead” brush. I’m okay with not being a “good” feminist for finding this film satisfying or watching it at least once a week.
I own my pop culture consumption choices and am aware that enjoying films with problematic content – even while noting said content – doesn’t absolve me of responsibility or diminish the costs of consuming the content. Let me be clear: Those whom find the whiteness framing of beauty worth saving a valid reason to dismiss the film I SUPPORT THAT CRITIQUE. Folks are on point with that criticism and I am WITH THEM on that point. Again, I don’t feel as strongly about its use in this film, but that doesn’t MEAN I DON’T FIND IT PROBLEMATIC; I DO!
Whew, now that we done got that out the way, let’s talk about what I think works about this film and why I really like it.
Taken marks a return – from a cinematic (not a thematic) standpoint – of the type of action film I enjoy: one that is efficient in exposition, judicious with backstory, brief on running time and HEAVY on action. Action films of late – and both recent Batman films are notable examples – take way too long setting up the scene as though anyone viewing would be unfamiliar of the elements of the action genre. Action films should be by default, all about some action. Sepia tone backstory ought be reserved for Blu-Ray disc two extras. As an action film fanatic I don’t give two hot Bruckheimer fucks about the genesis of the protagonist’s bad marriage, bad luck or bad temper. I just want to see that motherfucker kicking some ass. And Taken delivers in this regard. Everything I need to know about Neeson’s character, his relationship to others in the film and the central conflict are detailed in a swift, engaging exposition. The film never doubles back on itself and like the cinematic shark it is, it just keeps moving forward to its inevitable and satisfying conclusion. Not one single frame of ass kicking, head knocking and bone breaking action is wasted. Dialog is sparse; words are only used when eye gouging isn’t appropriate.
This is where having a brilliant actor like Neeson is helpful. Neeson can reveal every bit of motivation a scene requires with a knitted brow – he should have a sweater by now – or a pause or pulsating neck tendon; Neeson shows and never tells. Wanna know his thoughts on human trafficking: watch him kick down every door in every hideout and beat down every trafficking thug in Europe! Is he serious? You betcha and he’ll prove it by shooting someone innocent in the leg to compel their spouse to give up the deets. Of course, he’ll apologize profusely and thank you for the lovely dinner. After all we’re talking about the gentlemanly Neeson here, not Bruce Willis!