If French producer-director Luc Besson worked in Hollywood, he’d have won his Irving G. Thalberg Award by now. That particular Oscar, presented to “creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production” previously went to Darryl F. Zanuck, David O. Selznick, Walt Disney, Arthur Freed, Cecil B. DeMille, William Wyler, Albert R. Broccoli, Steven Spielberg, Billy Wilder, George Lucas, Clint Eastwood and Dino De Laurentis and—hear me now—Besson is in their class. Over the past two decades, attentive moviegoers witnessed Besson refine and revolutionize the action film. Those who saw La Femme Nikita, The Professional, The Fifth Element, the Transporter series, Ong Bak, Unleashed, District B-13 and Revolver know it. His impact could also be seen in War, Crank and Hitman—all innovative, intelligent and sleek. Maybe critics didn’t rally to Transporter 3 because at 100 minutes—and with the airy brilliance and wit of a Calder mobile—it seemed insubstantial in the midst of overlong, groaningly serious year-end Oscar bait.
Critics may have lost the taste for Manny Farber’s dictum that “space is the most dramatic stylistic entity.” But action-movie aficionados know to look forward to Besson’s spatially energized productions, and the new film Taken maintains his high standards. Going by its ads, Taken looks like a routine revenge drama circa 1990s Mel Gibson. Former CIA agent Bryan (Liam Neeson) uses his espionage skills to hunt down Paris-based prostitution thugs who abducted his teenage daughter (Maggie Grace). But the aplomb and political resonance of this familiar plot illustrates how Besson has transformed it. Director Pierre Morel (who previously directed District B-13 and was cinematographer on Transporter, Unleashed and War) is one of Besson’s wunderkind adepts; attuned to the meaning of movement—unlike emptily flashy TV commercial and music-video directors.
Taken has startling efficiency different from the incessant, agitating blur of the Bourne movies. Bryan’s odyssey happens in the shadow of international politics yet always highlights personal obligation. He can’t retire; global threat invades his domestic life and he is compelled to act. This familiar tale must be heightened. Besson, along with co-writer Robert Mark Kamen, ingeniously combine the freshest kinetics with topical unease. Upgrading the action tropes established by Hong Kong cinema and James Bond Euro-sizzle, he turns cinematic know-how (the look of things that is the specialty of his cinematographer-turned-directors) into sensitivity. Transporter 3 was supremely farcical in the way Frank Martin (Jason Statham) was gradually humanized. Taken’s hero is similarly gallant, not merely kick-ass.
Bryan’s pell-mell vigilantism is close-to-funny in its choreographed unstoppable fortitude. Revisiting the scene of his daughter’s capture, Bryan intuits images of her panic. It’s not a J-horror psychic-vision gimmick, but goes back to D.W. Griffith’s depiction of empathic emotion. Besson’s films find modern morality in the masculine will to act. This was once well understood in earlier eras of Hollywood genre-making—it explains why audiences have responded to the heroic banalities of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino—but Besson realizes how the Iraq War has changed people’s expectations of what defines masculinity in troubled societies. He isn’t a funky hipster like Tarantino but shows a deeper, neo-traditional morality. The always-strapping Liam Neeson now has a big, John Wayne purpose—defending the hearth (if not the American way). And the revival of this challenge is deeply thrilling.
Sexy Anglo-Saxon Jason Statham is but the figurehead of the Besson revolution (as was Rie Rassmussen, the hot chick star of Besson’s 2007 Angel-A). Its essence is apparent as Neeson’s Bryan applies CIA skills to uncovering an Albanian underground, outwitting the duplicitous French secret service (Mathieu Busson) and going sensationally mano a mano with East European gangsters. He revives modern man’s basic social conflicts with a violent, sexual audacity that is amusing in a lighter way than the metaphysically inquiring Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Taken streamlines post–Iraq War anxiety. Not guiltily twisted like Eli Roth’s Hostel movies, Besson flips Hostel’s stolen-Americans concept. Personal angst redeems Bryan’s actions in what would otherwise be Gitmo torture-porn. This isn’t just excitation, the alarm it rouses has cultural roots: When Bryan finds his daughter’s jacket on a Parisian prostitute, the talisman evokes John Ford’s The Searchers, which was remade by Paul Schrader as the father/daughter porn-industry tragedy Hardcore. Eventually Bryan’s revenge becomes a brothel slaughter that evokes Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver, another remake of The Searchers.
Besson’s refinement of action-movie formula helps Taken reassess post-9/11 principles. While the grandstanding Syriana exploited torture for cheap liberal righteousness, Besson and Morel dramatize Bryan’s struggle as a conscientious resistance to human degradation. Taken doesn’t inflate its sociological “significance,” but its genre refinement is what will make Besson’s movies (once people see them) outlast the Bourne films. Crank and the Transporter trilogy already have sizeable followings, and the aesthetically innovative editing of those films is displayed when Bryan takes his daughter’s cell phone memory card and zooms in on images of miscreant behavior.
Bryan’s 96-hour window to find his daughter teases the efficiency of Besson’s 90-minute plots and their emotional satisfaction. The gloomy, overlong Dark Knight denies audiences the fulfillment of catharsis and resolve. Its nihilism made it obnoxious; we need The Joker to be smashed. And that’s the moral beauty Besson assuredly delivers. As a producer, he works in the Val Lewton tradition without false sociological “significance” yet Taken is as morally, politically relevant as Fritz Lang’s two-fisted The Big Heat. Taken’s drama of vigilante action, with Neeson’s Bryan no different than John Wayne’s ultra-American Ethan Edwards, makes the Obama Inaugrual promise: “We will defeat you!” Luc Besson proves that the simplest movies can carry the deepest needs. Do they give Oscars for that?
Directed by Pierre Morel
Running Time: 94 min.
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