Taken

20th Century Fox, EuropaCorp, 2008

The most noteworthy thing about the movie Taken is that, apart from its surprising success and the trendy and topical issue of human trafficking (i.e. sex slavery), almost everything about it is politically incorrect. The good guys are Americans and even CIA agents. The bad guys are almost all Muslims -- Albanians and Arabs. There are also some French bad guys. Perhaps we get this because the movie is actually a French production (with a French director, Pierre Morel, and French producers, Luc Besson & Pierre-Ange Le Pogam). These days, one expects American directors, in their despicable but fashionable Anti-Americanism, to hate the CIA, love France, and avoid obviously Muslim villains. In this respect Taken can be contrasted with Man on Fire [2004], Shooter [2007], and especially the Bourne Identity movies [2002, 2004, 2007]. In these other movies there is a strong sense, or an explict presentation, that the CIA (or other American security or intelligence agencies) is either a force for evil or an actual criminal enterprise.

The story of Taken involves a retired CIA agent, played by Liam Neeson, who remains close to his friends in the Agency, but who has given up his career to be more involved in the life of his daughter (Maggie Grace). Unfortunately, his daughter is now old enough to not be that interested in him; and his ex-wife, played by Famke Janssen (of X-Men fame), is doing her best to interfere with his creating any kind of substantial relationship with the daughter. She seems to disapprove of his former profession and of the neglect of his family that it entailed.

The daughter looks forward to a summer in Europe with her friend (Katie Cassidy). Neeson, professionally all too aware of the dangers there for a couple of young women on their own, at first refuses his permission for her to go. We are likely to think that this is a bit extreme. Young adults wander all over Europe all the time. Neeson relents, but only on the terms that he sets for supervision and communication. Unfortunately, his daughter's friend has misrepresented matters even to her. The girls are going to be quite alone in the Paris apartment of some relatives of the friend, and they are going to party and travel, not study.

This does not bode well, but things go wrong much faster than we might even expect. The girls are spotted at the airport by sex traffickers, and the clueless friend allows them to be picked up and driven to the apartment by one of the traffickers, to whom she spills all the details of their arrangements. They are kidnapped in short order, as Neeson is actually speaking to his daughter on her cellphone. When she is taken, Neeson briefly talks to one of the kidnappers, who picks up the phone. He delivers a chilling warning that the man sees no reason to take seriously.

Now, human trafficking is a serious problem around the world. In Europe, impoverished women from Eastern Europe have been lured for some time into "jobs" in Central or Western Europe that turn out to be sex slavery sorts of prostitution. The thesis of the movie is that the traffickers are no longer bothering to bring in Eastern women but are now simply kidnapping tourists and enslaving them directly. This seems possible, but I don't know if it is actually happening. It is also a curious twist that the trade is run, not by the Russian Mafia or Moldovans, but by Albanians. I have not heard whether Albanians are actually involved in this kind of thing, though it is certainly possible. More disturbing is the revelation in the movie that all this can happen because the operation is actually protected by French authorities.

We soon learn that Neeson's warning is no empty boast. He is fully into a mode that we have already seen him play in his Star Wars movie, of the accomplished Jedi Knight, Qui-gon Jinn. Neeson does this rather well. In short order, he tracks down the traffickers, boldly walks in on their headquarters, pretending to be a French policeman on the take, and finally identifies the leader of the gang, "Marko," who is the man he spoke to on the phone. Then he kills everyone in the building, except Marko. Searching the building, he finds his daughter's friend, who is already dead, apparently from an overdose of the drugs that the traffickers have used to confuse and quiet the women. He then tortures Marko with electric shock into divulging what has happened to his daughter. He has already promised to kill the man, and he leaves him to be electrocuted to death -- a death we do not then see:  Is it grist for the sequel? [Taken 2 is now in production, according to Daily Variety, Tuesday, September 1, 2009, p.5.]

Neeson's fight sequences are nicely done, even if it does seem a little improbable that he could kill a dozen or so armed men without getting hurt. He must be good. We are reminded of Jason Bourne. Neeson's use of torture is simple and efficient, unlike the creative and grisly practices we see Denzel Washington use in Man on Fire. Unlike Washington, who is himself tortured by his conscience over what he has formerly done for the American government, Neeson is pretty clearly without remorse, regret, or guilt for whatever he has already been doing professionally. We are given to understand that his customers previously have been people just like Marko, who gets no sympathy from us.

Neeson learns from Marko that the trail leads to wealthy French sex traffickers, which presumably is why the whole business gets protected. Neeson then needs to use his skills on the former French intelligence agent whom he had contacted on arriving in France. It sounds like they had been colleagues and even friends. But when Neeson's activities become a little too damaging and public, his "friend" targets Neeson for arrest and deportation. This exposes the extent of the racket, and the Frenchman's complicity. Neeson gets the information he needs by shooting the man's wife, which morally seems to go beyond the bounds even of Man on Fire.

This is also a point where we might object on the basis of a certain level of believablity. Authorities who tolerate criminal enterprises quite sensibly draw the line where it may adversely affect one of their own. When the criminals accidentially catch up someone who isn't supposed to be a victim, the word goes out, and the criminals protect their protection by delivering up the improper prey. The former French intelligence agent knows that Neeson is a player, with existing friends and connections in the CIA. This is not someone to piss off. There could be repercussions for years in the intelligence community. Victims need to be nobodies with nobody to protect or avenge them. If the French are willing to tell Neeson "tough luck" about his own daughter, they are fools who don't know how to run a protection racket. Neeson's shooting of the wife nicely illustrates that no one is safe if certain boundaries are not respected.

Be that as it may, Neeson soon finds his daughter, kills some nasty privileged Frenchmen, but then must chase her down as she is spirited away to a boat on the Seine by her Arab purchasers. They all die, and Neeson himself is wounded, though it doesn't seem to slow him down much (as the boat surges down the river with no crew?). We don't know how he leaves France, or receives medical attention, but in the end everyone is back in the States (except for his daughter's dead friend), frightened but wiser -- even his ex-wife -- and his daughter evidently still a blushing virgin.

Despite a few improbable or unbelievable moments, Taken is a very sharp example of its genre. Opening without fanfare, and without, as far as I can tell, ever even being reviewed by Daily Variety, the movie was a surprise hit, a "sleeper," with "legs," persisting in the Top Ten movies many, many weeks after its release. After 73 days, an eternity in movie cycles, it still made more than $1,000,000 on the weekend of April 10-12, with a domestic box office of $141,107,779. I can't say why it has performed so well, unless its unusual politically incorrect features struck a certain nerve with audiences. They did with me, especially after my disgust with the Bourne movies.

In Robert Ludlum's books, The Bourne Identity [1984], The Bourne Supremacy [1987], and The Bourne Ultimatum [1991], "Jason Bourne" is actually an assumed identity of a CIA agent who has been injured and suffered amnesia during an operation. In the first book, the CIA doesn't know what has happened and worries that Bourne has gone rogue or defected. Bourne's handler doesn't think so, and in the end things get straightened out. Bourne recoveres his identity, marries the woman he meets in the course of the adventure, and retires to a quiet academic life. However, he continues to have trouble with his memory and remains haunted by his terrorist nemesis, Carlos the Jackal. The Bourne Identity movie [2002], reproduces this story without too many changes. It leaves out Carlos the Jackal, the marriage, and the quiet academic retirement. There is a sinister air about his CIA handler; but since the movie was being finished shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there is a scene, which they finally did not put in the movie, where the handler tells Bourne that he could return to his job at the Agency. This isn't quite the spirit of the book, but it is not too far off the reservation. Matt Damon makes a good Jason Bourne.

The second movie (The Bourne Supremacy, 2004) is something else. The handler is now evil, deserves to die, and does (as the actor, Brian Cox, is also the villian and dies in X2: X-Men United, 2003). Bourne begins to remember a very nasty operation that he had been involved in, which he now can avenge. The story has nothing to do with The Bourne Supremacy book, where nothing of the sort happens -- indeed the handler remains one of Bourne's best friends. Bourne's wife from the books, with whom he is living, unmarried, in India at the beginning of the movie, is quickly killed by the CIA, which is trying to get rid of Bourne. They can't, and in the end one sympathetic agent even tells him his real name. Meanwhile, in the book, Bourne has put a bullet into the corpse of Mao Tse-tung just to create a diversion. In the end, he returns to his quiet, married academic life again.

In the third movie (The Bourne Ultimatum, 2007), we learn that the moment with the sympathetic agent is actually in the context of the events of this story, where Bourne finally learns that his amnesia was not caused by an accident but was part of his preparation to be a remorseless murderer for the CIA. Meanwhile, in the The Bourne Ultimatum [1991] book, Bourne is back on the trail of Carlos the Jackal, with the help of his wife and his loyal CIA handler -- both of whom are already dead in the movie version of events.

So what is going on here? The makers of the movies clearly want the CIA and the United States to be the bad guys. Actual foreign terrorists, like Carlos the Jackal, do not fit this template and so are left out. Jason is fighting Amerika, not terrorists. When we consider that the United States was actually at war with terrorists as the second and third movies were being made, we realize that the movies are anti-war and anti-American political statements. Matt Damon himself seems to be involved in that kind of politics (as are Mark Wahlberg and Danny Glover, the stars of Shooter -- Glover is even a pal of the Communist Hugo Chavez). It involves a high level of folly, not to mention providing comfort and propaganda for the terrorist enemies, not just of the United States, but of humanity. The success of this sort of politics led to the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States; but Obama, perhaps sobered by his election, has realized that Iraqi democracy cannot simply be left in the lurch, and he actually plans to send more troops to Afghanistan. This has already disillusioned the most virulent parts of the anti-war movement, whose true motives are fully commensurable with those of the Post-Modern Left and Islamic Fascism.

Unfortunately, the Bourne movies are better than the Bourne books -- an aesthetic-moral disconnect that is familiar from the history of art -- and Matt Damon's Bourne character is more appealing than the source character. In the books, Jason Bourne not only has problems with his memory, he is also subject to confusion and panic attacks, when the panic sometimes leads to rash actions that blow his own planned operations. He is psychologically damaged and very much in need of the support of his wife and CIA friend. In the movies, where those people die, Matt Damon has no problems with panic or confusion, is always on top of the situation, and displays extraordinary abilities and lightning responses. He fools his enemies (the CIA, of course), even as the Jason Bourne of the books is often fooled by Carlos the Jackal. Given the vile message of the Bourne movies, it is thus a delightful difference to have nothing of the sort in Taken. If there is to be a sequel to Taken, one hopes it will not fall back into the same vicious political posturing that has become all too standard in Hollywood.

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Copyright (c) 2009 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved