Moreover, in the dazzling heat of today’s movies – from the twin political reincarnations, one evil and one saintly, of Nixon and Harvey Milk, to the brilliantly executed epics of Slumdog and Benjamin Button, to the Holocaust Film Festival, represented in descending order of quality by The Reader, Defiance and Valkyrie –Taken, while certainly a tour de force of pulp fiction, hardly rates a blip on the meter.
Certainly, there is action. Liam Neeson, ex-CIA man, becomes a one-man killing machine and urban commando in the furious quest to save his 17-year old daughter from slavery and human trafficking. Single-handedly, he rips through a bizarre underworld of Albanian sex traffickers, the interference of corrupt French Secret Service, the aristocratic French twistoids who auction off female slaves in the finished basements of their chateaus, and finally, the Arab thugs around a sheik who just added Neeson’s daughter to his cherished collection of virgins.
Virgins. It reminds me of Dennis Miller’s observation about the suicide bombers who dream of 72 virgins in Paradise. “72 virgins?” Miller asks incredulously. “After three or four you’re gonna want someone who knows what they’re doing!”
But I digress.
So this is a thriller that is truly thrilling, but only because unlike most action movies in our popcorn world, where a little plot is added simply to justify the car chase, the action here is in service to archetypes and themes that resonate deeply in our culture.
Archetype One: The beleaguered, divorced father desperate to connect with his daughter in the face of a smirking ex-wife married to a zillionaire.
All the divorced dads out there, from Alec Baldwin to the anonymous hordes who hand over half their salaries to divorce lawyers and the other half to ex-wives while not really getting to see their kids all that much, know about this one.
Neeson lost his family because of his CIA work. And everything that made him a great CIA “Preventer,” as he calls it, makes him a pathetic, eccentric figure in the upscale suburban society where he has returned to re-establish a relationship with his daughter. She is actually a rather vacuous, bourgeois twit, pampered by her step-father’s zillions and her insidious ex-wife-from-hell of a mom, but, well, she’s his daughter.
In his control-freak, anal-compulsive, security-at-all-costs rigidity, Neeson is a little off. He gives his daughter a karaoke machine whose operating manual he studied for days. The zillionaire step-father gives her a horse.
Archetype Two: The transcendent, supernatural devotion of parent to child, or: “Oy, what we do for our kids.”
Against all his doubts, after lying about the security and real intent of her trip, Neeson’s twit of a daughter sashays off to Paris for the summer with fellow bimbette in search of thrills and rock groupie-ism. They are so clever, they fall into the clutches of kidnappers about a minute and half outside the airport terminal. This is the plot point wherein Neeson transforms from awkward dad who misses his little girl into Rambo on the Seine (as opposed to Rimbaud on the Seine.) In our coddled and corrupted culture, we find fascination, indeed a craving, for Neeson’s crystalline integrity, unyielding devotion to purpose, and willingness to battle heaven and hell — mostly hell – for his daughter.
Archetype Three: The meltdown of the bourgeois fortress and the triumph of the dark forces
In the moment of evil, when the iPod-wearing, designer-label brandishing, suburban princess is taken to be sold into slavery, all the money, social standing and glittering complacency of her mother’s world is suddenly seen to be what it is: worthless. Powerless, in the face of forces that live outside and below civilization and reason. Just like the masters of the universe in the world economy today, standing helpless as financial turmoil grips the globe, disappears their money and evaporates their jobs. It is only the arcane killing skills, and archaic integrity of Neeson that can save the day. And so, as the saying goes, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, and the mocked figure becomes the hero, and in the end, all the coddled, arrogant ones can do is thank him.
In the real word, Bernie Madoff has soup every day in his penthouse with his wife and watches the evening news.
In Liam Neeson’s world, his bones and gold fillings would have long ago been melted down and sold to pay back the investors.