When I was nineteen years old, I spent a couple of weeks traveling by rail around Europe, some of that time with three other college girls, some of it with a male acquaintance (a companion of convenience, not romance—we could barely tolerate each other), and some of it on my own. Those days were some of the best of my life. I saw a production of Puccini’s La bohème in Rome and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at Notre Dame. I cried in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà and Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac. I walked along snow-covered streets in Vienna and pebbly beaches in Nice. I learned how to read train tables, how to bargain in street markets, and how to drink a shot of tequila.
It was enormous fun—a grand adventure—but more important than that, more important than everything I learned about art and architecture and music, was the resourcefulness that trip taught me, the independence, the self-confidence. This is not to say that I believed myself to be invulnerable—to the contrary, there were times when I was confused and scared, and with reason—but despite that, because of that, I learned to trust myself. I learned how to be brave and how to fake it when I wasn’t. I learned how to find my own way when no one was around to hold my hand. I treasure the memory of that time. As cheesy as it might sound, those two weeks helped make me who I am today.
So Taken breaks my heart. It’s a well-crafted but painfully alarmist thriller about a father trying to save his teenage daughter from the sex traffickers who have kidnapped her from the luxurious Paris apartment where she was vacationing with a friend. Daddy hadn’t wanted his little princess to go in the first place—too dangerous—but Mommy insisted, and look what happened, Daddy was right, the world is too dangerous for girls on their own. Watching Taken, I imagine hyper-vigilant parents taking its lessons to heart and forbidding their daughters from studying or traveling abroad, denying them the kind of opportunity I had, and I want to scream with frustration.
The really annoying thing is that, from a technical standpoint, Taken isn’t a bad film. Liam Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a former government agent who retired from intelligence work to be closer to his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), who lives with his bitter ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), and her extremely wealthy husband. Mills agrees to Kim’s vacation plans with great reluctance—he’s seen things, he knows how awful the world can be—and his worst fears are realized when men break into Kim’s Paris apartment while she’s on the phone with him and haul her away as she screams.
That’s when Taken kicks into high gear. The movie is directed by Pierre Morel, who handled cinematography on The Transporter, another ludicrous yet taut, muscular thriller of European extraction. Neeson isn’t a traditional action figure like Jason Statham, the terrifically game star of the Transporter series, but he’s still got the physicality for the role. I don’t have any problem believing that the broad-shouldered, shrewd-eyed Neeson could beat the crap out of someone with skill and efficiency, which is good, because that’s what Taken calls for. Mills is absolutely ruthless in tracking down his abducted daughter, leaving behind a string of bloodied, tortured, often lifeless bodies on his odyssey through the Parisian underworld, and Neeson persuasively embodies not only the physical prowess but also the emotional agony of his character. Make no mistake: Neeson is far too good for this kind of cheap pulp, but he’s good at it, and Morel, too, shows real talent at giving trash more polish and finesse than it deserves. The fight scenes in Taken are engagingly visceral, and the tension mounts with relentless drive. I have to acknowledge that it’s an effective thriller.
That’s not all technique, though. Taken is shamelessly manipulative. Kim is seventeen—she’s not a child—but the movie, like Mills, takes every opportunity to infantilize her. Attired in baby-doll dresses with her hair in pig tails, she literally jumps up and down and claps her hands when she’s excited and runs out of the room with the bent-over gait of a toddler when she’s having a tantrum. Teenage girls sometimes dress and act like that, of course, but Taken consistently presents Kim as an overgrown preteen, an absurdly unsophisticated, immature girl at the very age when most girls are desperately self-conscious and eager to present themselves as grown-up. But not Kim. Taken even makes a point of assuring us that Kim is a naïve virgin (not like her slutty friend who—spoiler!—ends up dead). The implication is that her being kidnapped, drugged, and raped would be less horrific if she wore tight skirts and cheerfully screwed her boyfriend back home—and that’s repellant. To put it bluntly, the movie makes as much of a fetish of Kim’s “purity” as her eventual buyer.
But even setting the creepy sexual undertones aside, the movie’s insistence on presenting Kim as a helpless child is profoundly depressing in another way. Mills is worried about his daughter gallivanting around a strange city without a parent—that’s understandable—but look at what he does to assuage those fears. He could have taught her how to keep her personal information secure while traveling; he could have given her some tips on the Paris Metro or instructed her never to accept drinks (or, ahem, taxi rides) from strangers; he could even have given her a crash course on self-defense. (After all, this is a man who could probably incapacitate an attacker with his pinky.) But no, he just hands her a cell phone with international coverage and asks her to call every night. In other words, instead of giving her tools that will help her protect herself, he takes her vulnerability for granted and tries to handle the job long-distance.
That’s what upsets me most. Risks are everywhere. Kim risks her life when she rides the horse she gets for her birthday, when she takes a car down the freeway to the airport, and, yes, when she ventures into an unfamiliar city without Daddy to protect her. But growing up means learning how to assess and manage risks for yourself, and Taken completely denies teenage girls’ ability to do that. What’s more, it exaggerates the risk of independence—that is, the risk of growing up itself. Sex trafficking is a terrible problem around the world, but the movie takes concern to hysteria, suggesting that girls are being abducted constantly, that even setting foot out of the United States (that bastion of security, where girls are never, ever harmed) is tantamount to wearing a “Rape me” sign. (Call me cynical, too, but if wealthy, beautiful, well-connected white girls were really being stolen away from their ritzy apartments in Paris on a daily basis, I think our 24-hour TV news networks—which love nothing better than the violation of wealthy, beautiful, well-connected white girls—would have let us know. I mean, really. When Mills tracks down the head trafficker, the man feebly protests that “It’s just business”—yeah, that will placate the irate, gun-wielding father—and I silently retorted, “Then think of it this way, asshole: Kidnapping the daughter of a man with ‘a very particular set of skills’ was a very bad business decision.”)
But I digress. The point is that Taken feeds on all kinds of unhealthy impulses—about the helplessness and so-called purity of girls, about the sanctity of vengeance, about the dangers presented by those “other” people. In a very narrow sense, it might be a “good” thriller, but in any sense than matters, it’s not good at all.