The disappointing, but aptly named, Losers failed to scratch the action itch that seems to have arisen in response to watching Haywire. I had heard good things about Taken, so decided to see whether that would work for me.
Taken derives from a slightly different schema than the others: it is a revenge movie where a wronged character moves from scene to scene killing anyone who’s crossed them. For me, the prototypical and perhaps still best of this genre is the original Get Carter, but I also have a lot of fondness for Payback. Doubtless when I get around to it, I’ll also enjoy Parker. Nevertheless, it shares the same story modules and basic story syntax with others in the general actiony genre area.
The film is extremely well put together: it is a slick production, with just enough money in the mix for it to look credible, but not enough that you get a lot of irrelevant and unrealistic explosions. (Compare, for example, the original Bad Boys, to Bad Boys 2; the massive increase in the budget was wasted on massive set-pieces that the first didn’t seem to need) Liam Neeson is also surprisingly convincing in the tough-guy role. I can see why they subsequently miscast him as Hannibal in The A-Team. I should have recognised the hand of Luc Besson while watching it – his fingerprints are all over it.
This is a film that understands how the genre works, and it slots all the various tabs together expertly. But there are a few problems that mean I’ll return to Get Carter or Payback but probably won’t ever watch Taken again, unless it’s as a late-night drinking game. The problem is that the film lacks the courage of its content. It is a film about young women being snatched and sold into sexual slavery – I don’t think that’s a spoiler since it’s apparent from the first quarter-hour or so. Yet it shows no empathy for the victims of the crime, instead almost parading them across the screen almost incidentally.
Indeed, it carefully and thoroughly suppresses any real emotional response to anything that happens on screen. The reason is that if you allowed an emotional response, the content would become overwhelming – it would cease being a kind of fantasy. We’ve talked a little about how this kind of thing works for satire, and I found Ben Elton’s similar material in High Society unbearable for that reason. What that means is that in comparison to something like Kill Bill, which is pure exploitation schlock, Taken almost feels like there’s a serious movie about trafficking lurking behind and below the surface.
What we have then, is a complete fantasy. It has no connection to reality. This means that we don’t particularly question the lack of consequences for the mayhem wrought over the film. The straightforwardly happy ending of the film reinforces this.
Which means that after the film I am left with an uneasy sense that the film has a problem with this one specific instance of human trafficking, rather than the practice generally. Get Carter gets away with that because it goes to great pains to invest us in the specific situation that Carter goes north to resolve. We recognise that it’s part of a general pattern of behaviour, for which the criminals pay with their lives, but it is an awareness rather than a parade. Taken, by showing us these disturbing images again and again, but without interest or empathy, makes us complicit in the indifference that allows such trafficking. Maybe that’s too bold a claim for such an obvious revenge fantasy, but it is my lingering impression and I’ll offer just one detailed example.
In the course of his investigation into the location of his daughter, he comes across a very disturbing brothel, from which he rescues one inmate because she has an item of his daughter’s clothing. When she wakes up with an IV drip, he tells her not to panic, and then immediately starts interrogating her, gently, but without compassion. He does not attempt to learn anything at all about her, and once he has the information he wants he simply abandons her in the hotel room. In other words, while he rescued her, it was simply because she was useful and once her utility was expended he discarded her as having no value to him. That’s pretty dark, and some films would offer this as a critique of the hero’s single-mindedness, but Taken just moves swiftly on.
The crowning moment of political incorrectness is in the different fates of the virgins and the sluts – there are no other types. The girls who’re virgins when snatched are sold for fabulous sums of money, while those who’ve experience sex are addicted to heroin and used as cheap sex labour. The value of a woman in this film is literally based around her sexual purity.
Taken is an extremely well made film. If I could believe that it was deliberately raising awareness of the reservations I note above, it could be lifted into the same kind of quality tier as Get Carter. As it is, I found watching it a strangely disquieting, yet superficially enjoyable, experience.