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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Quite Taken

Every so often, rarer than ever these days, a newly released movie will grab my attention and make me think “Gee whillikers. I’d sure like to see that in theatres.” Of course, that doesn’t happen anymore. Having two kids under four, and nobody you’d trust to babysit even if you were the type of parent inclined to let someone else raise your child for you, means that movie theatres are off limits. The last movie I saw in a theatre was Hot Fuzz, seen shortly before my daughter was born.

And I don’t truck with the kinds of parents who bring young children to R rated movies just because they feel entitled to retain some aspect of their previous, non-parenthood life. And yes, I am referring to you; the lady who brought her four year old in a stroller to see Snakes on a Plane. You’re a parent now. Suck it up and act like one.

Missing out on the theatre experience isn’t really a problem for me. I’m anti-social by nature (please note the user comment section on this blog. There isn’t one. And it’s not because I don’t like you, it’s just that I don’t care what you think.). Movie theatres are infested with people, which is a strike against them to me. It’s also expensive. Matinees go for seven bucks these days, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but $14 (you think I’d leave my wife at home to see a movie?) for a one-shot experience is kind of steep when a patient person can wait a few months and pay $20 for the DVD and have the movie to watch on his own terms as many times as I like, and if I don’t like it I can turn it around and resell it on Ebay or Amazon to recoup some of the purchase price.

Anyway, that long winded introduction was my way of giving you enough backstory to understand why I bought Taken, starring Liam Neeson, on DVD without having seen it before. The trailer caught my attention back when it first came out in theatres, and it gave me goose pimples.

The basic plot is laid out right there: Retired spook embarks on a quest to find his kidnapped daughter. That would have been enough to sell me on several levels: I’m a father, I like action movies, and I’m impressed by the novelty of making the CIA the good guys for a change.

So the premise had me sold. What about the execution? It’s even better. First off, let me be blunt and point out that Liam Neeson is one of the best actors currently working in Hollywood today. He and Ed Harris are two actors that have really earned the right to call themselves actors. They’re not flashy, and they tend not to win as many Oscars as they probably deserve, but never once do you see them in a movie and fail to believe them in their respective roles. Neeson flawlessly conveys not only the urgency that the character must feel, but also the supreme confidence that the character has in his ability to get this job done. There is no failure for this man. You get the impression that he has done all this a thousand times before when the stakes for him personally were considerably lower.

Another thing that struck me about the movie is how true it rings. I admit I don’t have any real knowledge of the sorts of things Neeson does in this movie. But there is one name I trust above all others to give me an accurate account of how such things are done, and that name is Marcinko. I have read every book ever written by the Sharkman of the Delta, and every action sequence in Taken feels like it was informed by all of them. The violence is quick, decisive and brutal. Fights are never fair, and the gunplay seems to have been directed by someone who’s actually held a gun in his lifetime. There is no drawn out give and take, no banter, and no mercy. Even the car chases feel like how a real one would play out.

In fact, the only “no you didn’t” moment in the movie comes early on, when the hero uses what appears to be a magical photo printing kiosk to identify an accomplice to his daughter’s kidnapping by finding his reflection in a picture taken by a cell phone. If only my photo kiosks had a magical “enhance” button, I wouldn’t need to upgrade from my 1 Megapixel camera. I could just use the software to “enhance” my pictures until they looked like 10 Megapixels, or since it’s magic I might as well go whole hog and say infinity-pixels. (They actually have these, incidentally. They’re called 35mm cameras.)

The main thing about Taken, though, is how un-Hollywood the movie feels. The main character is a former CIA spook, and his friends are also former CIA spooks. And they are, to a man, good men. They are good men who know how and when to do horrible things. The most surprising bit of it, though, is there is no distraught hand-wringing about it. Yes, the main character conducts some fairly brutal interrogations. But by the time all is said and done, it’s clear he was doing right. Without going so far as to say the end justifies the means, the movie makes it clear that when bad things are happening and the chips are down, you want a man like this in your corner.

It’s also pretty clear that the writer and director had absolutely no concerns about how this movie would play overseas. Contrast with your blockbusters like G.I. Joe, which changed G.I. Joe into some kind of NATO on steroids solely for international marketing reasons. Without spoiling too much, the primary villains are Albanian human traffickers that seem to be ripped from the headlines. The French authorities in Taken are corrupt, incompetent or both. This is not a movie intended to ingratiate itself to the continental crowd.

Another really surprising, perhaps the most surprising and un-Hollywood aspect of the movie is the main character’s daughter. Not just in how well written she is; probably one of the more well rounded, accurate 17 year olds you’ll see in a movie; but in a particular peculiarity of hers that I won’t mention for the sake of spoiler reduction. Suffice it to say that a trait that is not highly valued among Hollywood types turns out to literally save her life.

Taken is an intense, well written and well acted thriller. I heartily recommend it to anyone who like the Jason Bourne style of spy-thriller, but who is tired of the standard genre tropes.