Making good trash is not easy. Creating, say, Oscar bait is essentially simple: take a sombre subject (ideally the Holocaust, war, or whatever theretofore cinematically underexplored illness happens to be kicking around that year), cast a bunch of great actors and make the whole thing as mirthless and nihilistic as at all possible. But trash is a balancing act. You must create a story that titillates the audience by pandering to their basest instincts, but you must do it without (a) pretension and (b) treating the viewer like a toddler with attention deficit disorder.*
Taken is great trash.
The story is simple, but it works. Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is an ex-CIA operative who, judging by his accent, joined the agency during one of its recruitment drives in County Antrim. His seventeen-year-old daughter Kim, played by Shannon from Lost (Maggie Grace), wants to follow U2 around Europe with her best friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy making her second appearance on these hallowed pages, which is sadly telling on the amount of cultural garbage I consume). Bryan is worried, but eventually agrees to the plan. Sure enough, once in Paris Kim and Amanda are kidnapped by a gang of Albanians, who according to this film are the scum of the earth. (Following Taken one imagines Albania as Mordor’s little brother, where human traffickers are bred by the hundreds in dark mountain fastnesses.) Bryan is forced to follow the abduction live since it happens during a phone conversation with Kim, and tells an unseen kidnapper that while he can’t pay a ransom, ‘what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.’ Awesome. The Albanians are part of a criminal organisation that forces young women into prostitution by addicting them to drugs. Wherefore Bryan travels to Paris to investigate, cross swords with the obstructive French authorities, and kill dozens of henchmen in cold blood.
Nothing here is realistic. Neeson’s accent of course never moves more than ten miles out of Ballymena, but since I’m very fond of Irish speech this is all to the good. The dialogue is gleefully over-the-top: my favourite line is ‘Sorry doesn’t cut it anymore, Jean-Claude! Not this time!’, but there are others that come close. Neeson punches, shoots and slashes his way through hordes of goons with astonishing ease. All this cheerful excess, however, never veers into camp. The makers treat their film seriously, and as a result we do, too.
That there is very little introspection matters not. The characters are established efficiently at the start, and as a result we accept Bryan’s investigation/callous killing spree without hesitation. Taken is all forward movement, never stopping until the conclusion and unforgivably bland epilogue. Being exploitation it of course deals in exciting the viewer with lots and lots of fighting. To which I can only say: yes, it’s really quite exciting. And the victims are clearly all Very Bad Men, so you’re not meant to think about whether the safety of one American girl really justifies the slaughter of what must be forty or fifty foreigners. That said, there are at least three moments at which Bryan steps beyond the pale in committing acts that seem excessively vindictive. They cause the film to stagger, but not fall.
Sometimes mindless entertainment can be quite a wonderful thing. Taken is simple: here’s our hero, there’s his girl, and between them are legions of anonymous cannon-fodder. Simple isn’t bad. Taken offers uncomplicated thrills, but it knows enough about good, efficient storytelling that you accept it, even empathise with Rob Roy’s roaring rampage of rescue.
*Blade II (2002) falls into the first trap; many more films fall into the second: Wanted (2008), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), and so on.