When Daddy Knows Best
Produced by Luc Besson and directed by Pierre Morel, Taken (2008) is the story of retired CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) whose daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) is kidnapped in France by Albanian human traffickers intent on selling her to an Arab sheik. A one-man wrecking crew, Bryan is relentless in his search for Kim and shows no mercy in extracting information from the criminals who know her whereabouts. He rescues Kim just in time and brings her home safely.
According to Box Office Mojo, the movie grossed $226,830,568 worldwide against a production budget of $25 million. The impressive return on investment led to a 2012 sequel also produced by Besson but directed by Olivier Megaton, which earned $374,275,836 worldwide.
Evidently popular with filmgoers, Taken predictably took a hit from liberal reviewers. Here's Manhola Dargis
[T]his digitally dreary-looking movie gleefully trades on the specter of American vigilante justice. ... Swarthy Europeans and Arabs may still be the villains du jour at the movies, but the Americans, including those with inexplicable Irish accents, are, alas, catching up.
Cinema Autopsy's Thomas Caldwell gave it 1.5 stars
A degree of implausibility is inevitable in action films but Taken is beyond ludicrous. Characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue is trite and even the action scenes are bland... Neo-cons will probably love Taken but everybody else should avoid.
Kenneth Turan described the movie in the Los Angeles Times as:
...a brisk and violent action programmer that can't help being unintentionally silly at times... not the kind of action film to spend much time worrying about its pedestrian script or largely indifferent acting, so it's fortunate to have Neeson in the starring role.
Rotten Tomatoes flung a few:
Taken is undeniably fun with slick action, but is largely a brainless exercise.
"Vigilante justice?" "Unintentionally silly?" "Brainless exercise?" Hardly. Had these folks shed their ideological biases they would have noticed the following:
• The movie's story line follows a moral dilemma to its resolution in ways that most audiences would find easy to relate to. Who among us would fail to go to any lengths to save a beloved child, perhaps even at the cost of endangering one's own life? Luckily, this is seldom necessary in a country blessed with the rule of law but what if that proved insufficient? Not too long ago, knights in shining armor braved the odds to rescue a damsel in distress. Perhaps it's time for those days to return, not only when there's a fire in the neighborhood.
• The world is a far more dangerous place for women, especially beautiful women. By the time a boy is 17 (Kim's age in the film) he has acquired survival skills that would serve him well in most circumstances. Males are genetically programmed to react quickly and sometimes effectively when faced with a threat. Women are also good at sensing threats but are far less able to cope with it. Rigorous training may improve a woman's odds but there's no denying that in a one-on-one contest against a man like Bryan she has less chance than the armed Albanian kidnappers. Women in combat? Only if our women get to fight their women -- except maybe those East German "women" at the Olympics of yesteryear.
• Kim is lucky to have a father who has the experience and determination to go after the kidnappers and set her free. The vast majority of people lack such recourse. In another sense, the movie implies, Americans are lucky that people like Bryan are on the job protecting the country. Protecting the country against what threat? Stars and crescent moons tattooed on the forearms of the Albanian criminals make it clear they're Muslims, whose religion allows them to regard the girls they kidnapped and forced into prostitution as expendable infidels and treat them as less than human. The movie does not include dialog that makes this point clear, figuring it doesn't need to. Maybe it should have.
• In a violent scene, Bryan uses electric shock to extract information about Kim's whereabouts from the kidnappers' boss. The thug spits in his eye at first but then relents after the pain becomes unbearable and he provides Bryan a valuable clue. The moral issue is whether torture is permissible as a last resort when innocent lives are at stake, lives placed in harm's way by a terrorist who can provide timely information to save them but refuses to do so. Few among us doubt it would have been morally permissible to use Bryan's technique on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to prevent the horror that was September 11, 2001.
• The larger issue -- which other movies in the genre have explored as well -- is whether rights possessed by individuals by virtue of being human can ever be forfeited and in what circumstances. The English political philosopher John Locke thought so. Certain crimes are so heinous that the criminals have in a sense "crossed the line" and their rights are no longer worthy of moral respect. For known mass murderers such as Stalin, Hitler, and Mao this is obvious. We also should not shed a tear over the summary execution of SS officers the Allies captured. The movie implies that Kim's abductors deserved what they got, which is why audiences cheer as Bryan mows them down without mercy to save his beloved daughter.
• It is not a coincidence that the action takes place in France. Besson is implicitly taking a shot at his own country's soft attitude toward criminal behavior by its growing Muslim population -- recall the riots that exploded in 2005. Bryan was speaking for many in France when he tells the Albanians, "You come to this country, take advantage of the system and think because we are tolerant that we are weak and helpless. Your arrogance offends me." This is not something that can be said explicitly in the EU, where criticism of Islam is forbidden by law. It may seem strange that a French film had to hide behind an American protagonist to deliver a message the whole continent needs to hear; unless we recall that it was American soldiers who saved Europe -- first from Hitler, then from Stalin.
Taken remains one of the few popular films to deal with Islamic threats on any level. (remember the bellicose Jihadis of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears who mysteriously turned into South Africans in the film version?) As such, the reaction of the media perhaps tells us more about the current state of our culture than we'd strictly like to know.