Everyone wants revenge. We’re savages. Two thousand years of Christianity hasn’t dulled the revenge instinct in the slightest. If we’re wronged, we want the wrong doer to suffer. If our children are wronged, we want carnage. In movies (lucky us) we get to act out these revenge fantasies vicariously. Even High Noon is basically saying: they wronged you, now it’s right for you to kill ’em. Through the Seventies and Eighties these movie revenge fantasies might have got more violent, but that only meant more blood; it didn’t alter our desire. In Taken, Liam Neeson kills half of Paris on our behalf. What was the bad-guys’ crime? Kidnap.
The first twenty minutes of Taken are there to make us feel better about what Liam does for the other hour and ten. This is crucial in any revenge movie, as, without assurances the hero doesn’t constantly commit acts of violence, we might confuse him with the villain (who never seems to act nice). So we see Liam worrying about his seventeen-year-old daughter’s trip to Paris; Liam hanging out with some ex-army buddies; Liam saving a pop star’s life… He’s obviously some sort of former special-forces type, living meekly but honourably in Los Angeles, making efforts not to kill anyone. But when his daughter is kidnapped while on holiday in Paris; it’s a bit like showing a red rag to a bull, if the bull had been in special-forces.
Even Liam Neeson’s nose looks tough. You look at him and you think: oak. He looks like he could’ve been born at any time in history. He could till a field. He could smelt iron. He could wrestle an alligator. And you’d believe him. When people talk about the dignity of work, they’re picturing Liam working. He goes about killing people in Taken like a Victor Hugo character – like a man driven to it by the murderous lassitude of the bourgeoisie. It’s telling that when he meets an old friend who now works in a bureaucratic position in law enforcement, it’s almost as if Liam knows his old friend is crooked because he sits (apathetically) behind a desk.
The movie was produced by Luc Besson, an art-house troglodyte who knows film-making the way some of our more influential ancestors knew their way around a club. Besson made a movie called Leon (a.k.a. The Professional) a long time ago that set out his stall: monosyllabic, borderline-personality-disorder hero meets nubile girl, learns to love, then kills every living thing in his path. Leon attracted a lot of critical attention at the time because Besson seemed to flirt controversially with paedophilia. But his subsequent career as a producer has proved that any dicey material was there because Besson didn’t realise it was dicey (reason being: every female lead might as well be twelve from an action-movie producer’s perspective).
You can tell Taken takes its impetus from a producer by the way it gleefully ignores political correctness flashpoints. The bad-guys are uniformly racial stereotypes (Arab, Eastern European) and there’s never a moment where the writers’ instinct (to grant even bad-guys’ humanity) threatens to prevail. Men are stabbed, shot, strangled, run over, shot, shot again. Liam even shoots one guy’s wife at the dinner table (Liam thought-bubble: “Have that for dessert!”). The movie makes the second half of Commando look tame.
Is there catharsis at the end of Liam’s quest? It’s doubtful. Liam comes home – the way every action-man comes home – to a place where actions have no consequence. Already there’s talk of Taken 2, where Liam could return to Paris and – I dunno – pull out a guy’s spleen with his bare hands. The moral of every action-movie is that violent death has no repercussions. Taken is a fantasy: a) because what happens is unrealistic, and b) because we want to believe bad is bad and good is good. Truth is: if you’re violent to people, you’re a violent person. Taken says: if they’re bad, it doesn’t count.