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Why It Works: Taken

02.17.2017
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Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.

****SPOILERS AHEAD****

Okay, I know what you're thinking. Why would a column that tends to discuss less conventional films take on a fairly by-the-numbers popcorn action flick? Well, with two sequels and a prequel series premiering on NBC at the end of the month, there's clearly something about 2008's TAKEN that separates it from your average action thriller. With that said, I'm doing something a bit different this week. Instead of discussing why a film works despite not playing by the rules, I'm dissecting a film which focuses so closely on the rules, it not only demonstrates their importance but also shows us which traditional devices can be left by the wayside. TAKEN establishes relationships quickly, offers primal, urgent stakes and obstacles, and takes us on a hell of a ride along the way. Here's why it works:

WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:

For a relatively short film, TAKEN really lets us spend time with the characters before things get going. The first 20 minutes play like a family drama, and we find ourselves genuinely invested in our protagonists and how they relate to each other. Bryan Mills, in his dad khakis and polo shirt, desperately wants to be a part of his 17 year-old daughter Kim's life after having missed so much of it due to his career. Having missed much of his marriage for the same reasons, his ex-wife Lenore keeps him at arms length, while her new husband Stuart also vies for the affections of their daughter. The nice thing here is the lack of stereotypes in these relationships. Lenore doesn't hate Bryan, nor is there alpha male tension between Bryan and Stuart, nor does Kim act more affectionate toward Stuart that to her own father. There's just enough tension here for the scenario to feel both believable and engaging. Of course, Bryan Mills is also a badass with a very particular set of skills, and it's this juxtaposition of awkward, overprotective father and relentless retired CIA operative that sets him apart from the cool and collected Bonds, Bournes, and McClanes of the genre.

Back when Maggie Grace was 20 on Lost and then showed up years later in this movie as a 17 year-old.

WHY WE CARE:

Be it Mel Gibson and his son, Wesley and Buttercup, Ripley and Newt, or Mario and the Princess, stories about rescuing a loved one are nothing new. Where TAKEN takes it up a notch is having Kim be kidnapped after so sweetly detailing the relationship between her and her father. This isn't a movie about rescuing the princess; it's a movie about a father having to save his daughter when her prom date gets too handsy in the car- only the prom date is a group of Albanian thugs, getting too handsy is kidnapping a teenage virgin to sell as a sex slave, and the car is all of Paris. Also, instead of beating the shit out of the prom date and telling him not to come near his daughter again, Bryan Mills just murders everyone who gets in his way. Yes, it's gratuitous, but the combination of knowing what the bad guys are up to and seeing a father who will stop at nothing to protect his daughter makes the action scenes more personal and primal than just mere eye candy.

"Wake up; I need you to be focused!"

As far as the narrative itself, TAKEN plays like a how-to book of plot advancement. Bryan's objective is crystal clear, the stakes are high, and the obstacles are ever-present. When Bryan has the information he needs, we immediately advance to the next part of the story ("I remember a house with a red door... Paradis..." CUT TO: Bryan outside of a house with a red door on Rue de Paradis). Alternatively, we have moments where Bryan's only lead is eliminated, as when he tracks down the smooth talking Peter- who then runs away and gets himself killed by a truck in the process. The constant push and pull here keeps the story alive every second of the way and never lets us feel sure about what's going to happen next. Even the necessary information-getting scenes are entertaining, whether it's Bryan harassing a prostitute in order to plant a microphone on her pimp or the uncomfortable dinner with Jean-Claude and his wife. Add to the mix a small side story about Jean-Claude and French intelligence trying to track down Bryan, and we have an extra layer of urgency as our hero becomes both the pursuer and the pursued. It's also worth noting that this is the side story most films would spend 20-30 minutes on, but being as it takes focus away from the main point of the film, TAKEN knocks this subplot out in just a few short scenes.

Just a nice, normal, cozy meal.

WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:

There are no surprises here- the movie about a guy saving his daughter ends with the guy saving his daughter. We lose Kim's friend Amanda along the way, unfortunately, but that only raises the urgency of Kim's situation and makes Bryan's vengeance that much more visceral and cathartic. Bryan's takedown of the... sexboat, I guess... goes from stealthy to haywire, and after a final showdown with Jabba the Sheikh, Bryan and Kim share a tearful embrace, and we are finally able to breathe. This is a story about family, though, and so as we get back into the real world, we see Lenore and Stuart reunited with Kim and grateful to Bryan for his actions, and Bryan is finally able to give Kim a better present than a karaoke machine. Having rescued a pop star and idol to Kim early in the film, Bryan is able to bring a stunned Kim to her house for a lesson with her vocal coach. The father has found a way to connect with his daughter, everything is back to normal, and we definitely don't need any sequels, damn it.

The moment that makes the whole ugly, brutal affair worth it.

WHY WE REMEMBER:

Speaking of the sequels, go watch TAKEN 2 and TAKEN 3 or just read their plot summaries and look at how much of the above is gone. We have more contrived family dynamics, long scenes showing what the bad guys are up to, less focused narratives, not much of a ticking clock, and more stereotypical filmmaking overall. TAKEN is far from a perfect film, but at 93 minutes, it takes what could be a two hour movie and trims away all the fat- all those scenes where you find your attention drifting from the screen because you know this is the requisite downtime before the next cool thing. This keeps the pacing sharp and quick while still constantly reminding us about the emotional context of the situation. Never for a second do we forget that Bryan Mills is a father trying to protect his little girl and not just some action hero killing bad guys to stop them carrying out some contrived master plan. Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen's script balances the domestic drama and thriller elements of the story beautifully, and Pierre Morel's directing with Michel Abramowicz's cinematography give us a crisp, sleek film that feels just a bit more elegant than the average Hollywood fare. Liam Neeson gives us a refreshingly older hero (which has now become a thing, often with Neeson in the role), and Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen play their parts admirably (even if they don't have a ton to do). The sequels are nothing special- though satisfying enough if you just want to see Bryan Mills kick some more ass- and I'm not holding out any hope for the network series, but TAKEN remains one of the most exciting films of its genre in recent memory, and if you disagree, I will look for you, I will- ah, you get the idea.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at brianbitner@joblo.com.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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12:53PM on 02/17/2017
"Liam Neeson gives us a refreshingly older hero (which has now become a thing"

Actually * puts Trilby hat, Thick Rim glasses & flannel shirt * You'd have to go back to the 80s and watch Charles Bronson's Kinjite: Forbiden Subjects where his daughter gets groped by some Japanese guy on business, and he loses his shit but he's already investigating a case of a missing Japanese girl (guess you know where this is heading) and he's hell bent on finding her because of some drug-dealer he knows is
"Liam Neeson gives us a refreshingly older hero (which has now become a thing"

Actually * puts Trilby hat, Thick Rim glasses & flannel shirt * You'd have to go back to the 80s and watch Charles Bronson's Kinjite: Forbiden Subjects where his daughter gets groped by some Japanese guy on business, and he loses his shit but he's already investigating a case of a missing Japanese girl (guess you know where this is heading) and he's hell bent on finding her because of some drug-dealer he knows is thrown in the mix and finding the pervert who "molested" his daughter.

Typical 80s cheese but he treats each case with the same level of conviction.

* takes off regalia *
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12:57PM on 02/17/2017
Haha, love it. I wasn't saying it's never been a thing before, just that this seems to be a whole new subgenre now- due in no small part to the fact that the action heroes we grew up with are older now.
Haha, love it. I wasn't saying it's never been a thing before, just that this seems to be a whole new subgenre now- due in no small part to the fact that the action heroes we grew up with are older now.
10:21AM on 02/17/2017
It works because of a protagonist that we can relate to with his relentless pursuit to get his daughter back. Apart from that, Liam Neeson. Without him, it wouldn't work. Let's say that this is a Steven Seagal movie. It would just be a Seagal movie. But with Liam Neeson, it's one kickass movie.
It works because of a protagonist that we can relate to with his relentless pursuit to get his daughter back. Apart from that, Liam Neeson. Without him, it wouldn't work. Let's say that this is a Steven Seagal movie. It would just be a Seagal movie. But with Liam Neeson, it's one kickass movie.
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11:06AM on 02/17/2017
Plus we have the excellent hook of Bryan's phone threat.
Plus we have the excellent hook of Bryan's phone threat.
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