It’s no surprise that Taken scored number one at the box office in its opening weekend.
What is surprising is how an action film with all the accoutrements of a conventional vigilante thriller — shot through (no pun intended) with dizzying gunplay and dazzling car chases — is both unconventional and timely.
This is partly because of canny casting. Critically acclaimed actor Liam Neeson brings considerable depth and dimension to his role as a retired unhappily divorced secret operative who, as one ex-CIA buddy puts it, never “lost his edge” — and who, as the doting father of a teenager, must unleash his moribund skills when his virginal daughter is kidnapped by Paris-based Albanians in the sex slave trade.
Cinematographer-turned-director Pierre Morel contributed mightily to the film’s unconventionality by infusing his pure-action scenes through the cobblestoned streets of Paris with disciplined purposefulness.
Not only does he force us to suspend disbelief as he puts Neeson through his James Bondian paces with great panache, but he eschews action for action’s sake, ensuring that our focus remains, not on car chases and karate moves, but on emotions we can relate to: a loving father’s pain, fear, and rage.
And writer-producer Luc Besson’s literate script should give conventional thriller-oriented filmmakers pause. What makes Taken so refreshingly unusual is that even though the rescue attempt unfolds at breakneck speed, the aggrieved father lets his mind dictate his moves. He doesn’t just break bones, he psyches out the bad guys. Hence the cool efficacy with which he finesses every foray into enemy territory.
Top this off with the guts it takes for him to periodically replay imagined images of his daughter’s horror — thus stoking his own — in order to fuel his resolve, to overcome all odds, and you have a movie that appeals to all ages.
But what explains its timeliness and why it opened at $24.6 million — giving an unprecedented boost to the first “$1 billion January” in Hollywood history — is the protagonist’s no-holds-barred unapologetic sense of justice.
In today’s cultural and political landscape, bombarded as we are with brazen accounts of corruption and cowardice, we need a respite. There’s a good reason why Taken’s distributor is calling it an “all-audience movie” and predicting a long life — or, in Hollywood parlance, “play time.” There’s a good reason why this reviewer gives the movie five stars.
In my book about my mentor-protégé relationship with Ayn Rand, I wrote that people have “a fundamental need, an aesthetic yearning, if you will, for the larger-than-life in their life” — for an antidote to “the dull, the grim and the ugly.” For heroes. And by heroes, I meant “...men and women who are unusual or efficacious or uncompromising or committed to some just cause and willing to take a stand or put their lives on the line for it....”
Liam Neeson’s CIA operative is all of this, and moviegoers will almost viscerally recognize and root for such a man. They instinctively grasp that he is no mere “protagonist” with the usual mixed premises or feet of clay. In thought and in deed, he is a hero.
Erika Holzer’s vigilante suspense thriller Eye for an Eye was a Paramount feature film directed by John Schlesinger and starring Kiefer Sutherland and Sally Field. For more about her other books, fiction and non-fiction, and her most recent book, Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher, see www.ErikaHolzer.com.