By Alec Deacon
“I’ve maybe two or three left in me before my knees give way!”
Back in the heady days of 2011, during interviews and chat show appearances to promote his new thriller Unknown, Liam Neeson did not hold out much hope at the age of 58, for his burgeoning action man career to last much longer. Since then there has been; The Grey (2012), Taken 2 (2012), Non-Stop (2014), A Walk Among The Tombstones (2014), Taken 3 (2015) Run All Night (2015) and now, Taken 4: A Train Ride (stylised as T4KEN, probably), sorry The Commuter (2018).
For a man who thought he only had two or three gritty actioners left in him before his knees collapsed, Neeson has definitely gone above and beyond the call of duty. Neeson is not new to the action genre it might be pointed out, (Darkman anyone?), but where, five people might ask, did this ten-year run of anti-hero killer thriller’s come from?
2008 and the buzz is all on a phone call from the latest Luc Besson scripted picture Taken, and a rather memorable monologue delivered brilliantly by the thriller’s protagonist Liam Neeson (Bryan Mills). Neeson plays a crazed retired CIA agent out to get his daughter back from vicious sex traffickers. It all begins in Paris with one kidnapping and one phone call, which was used heavily in the marketing, that even people who had not seen the film were already quoting that line and generating great word of mouth.
Taken was never meant to make a big splash it was a throwback B-Movie in the ‘one man out for revenge’ genre of yesteryear but with added grunt and minus the one liners. Written by a Frenchman, directed by a Frenchman, made by, well the French, set in France and starring an Irishman playing an American. Even the star thought it was a straight to video movie, ‘‘I took it for a free trip to Paris and to learn some Karate’’ Neeson would say later.
Many critics hated Taken at the time and still do. Dropped at Taken’s door were criticisms such as; it is anti-Europe, it is xenophobic bordering on racist and it is derogatory towards women. Maybe it is, maybe it is not, maybe it is just what it is and if you find yourself over analysing it then, you probably shouldn’t have watched it in the first place.
Other criticisms were that Neeson’s character Bryan Mills has no moral compass, injuring anyone and everyone in the pursuit of his single objective, whether they be villain or innocent bystander and that Taken, is just Schwarzenegger’s 1985 Daddy on a mission movie, Commando, but with all the one liners and ‘fun’ removed. Lets address this together. Arnie in Commando racks up around 80 kills, most of which are mowed down with one gun that is seemingly able to self reload (if you want to argue about plausibility in action adventures go elsewhere). Neeson on the other hand racks up a body count of around 30 and on the subject of morals, remember when Arnie tells the guy I’ll kill you last, but lies. At least Neeson tells the truth right from the start and with total honesty said, ‘‘I will find you and I will kill you’’. You can’t fault the guy for that, he is a man of his word.
Bryan Mills is an anti-hero, he is not a good guy, and he does not pretend to be, so why people are so shocked when he casually shoots someone’s wife in the arm to get information is quite baffling. This man is not supposed to be likable he has one goal, his mission and it must be accomplished. That is all the character motivation this man has, and that is made quite clear from the beginning.
Luc Besson writes how he writes because he is French. His films have the French attitude all over them. And that French attitude can be an alien experience when lost in translation. Did Besson write the Taken script in French? More than likely. If Taken was a French thriller there would be a very different discussion going on.
Taken IS a French actioner in all but language, it is more serious than over the top, it is produced on a low-budget, deliberately shot with a dark palate, so it is almost black and white. It is a bit depressing, and challenges the “status quo” and is open to interpretations on mainly sex, dying and or suffering. If anyone saw the French, Pour Elle (Anything For Her), released the same year as Taken, or 2006s Ne Le Dis à Personne (Tell No One) you can see a comparison.
It has been said Taken set a trend for older action stars but really it did not create a genre of action films starring older male protagonists. Geriaction has been around since the days of John Wayne, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood. Hell, Indiana Jones 4 and Rambo 4 were both released in 2008 as well. Stallone was 61 at the time and Harrison Ford was 65 when he wore the iconic fedora once more. Neeson is but a young’un in comparison.
What changed is the type of action, gone was the simple punch, block, neck-hold, shoot your way home style of ‘fun’, now Martial Arts were in. Of course Martial Arts movies are nothing new either and neither are American martial arts movies, from the likes of The Karate Kid to anything by Jean-Claude Van-Damme and The Matrix.
No, Taken did not reinvent the revenge genre. It created a sub-genre, the Dadsploitation pic, or maybe more accurately, Granddadsploitation, which is quite different then the aforementioned Geriaction. In the wake of Taken we got father son, father daughter dynamics such as, Edge Of Darkness (2010) Drive Angry (2011) A Good Day To Die Hard (2013) 3 Days To Kill (2014) Blood Father (2016) and to an extent The Equalizer (2014) and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016).
Taken did far better than anyone involved ever thought it might and spawned two (lesser) sequel’s and a prequel TV show. Why? No one really knows. It never tried to be anything other than what it is, a short sharp action thrill ride that keeps you engaged and invested in what is happening for 95 neck snapping minutes. What Luc Besson did do however was take the Transporter template he had crafted over a trilogy (as of 2008) by way of the Bourne trilogy (2002-2007) and apply it to the family in peril trope.
It is no secret a lot of women between the ages of 15 to 25, love Taken. Is that the secret that pushed Taken‘s box office to beyond $225 million, a cross demographic appeal of young men who enjoy the brutal no-nonsense action, to older guys that think they’ve still got it and young women who see their dad as the hero that would stop at nothing to rescue them? Taken really is fun for all the family to enjoy! Be honest we all wish Liam Neeson was our Dad.