Thursday, 17 March 2011

Pierre Morel, Taken (2008)

I've a soft-spot for action movies, and there are some Liam Neeson films from the 1990s I don't mind at all, so when this popped up on Sky Movies rotation I thought I'd give it a go. But oh lordy I wish I hadn't.

It's a run-of-the-mill plagiary of one of Schwazenegger's more forgettable movies (Commando): retired American superspy alpha male, particularly close to his daughter, goes on the rampage when said daughter is stolen away, tracking down and killing everybody associated with the kidnap with guns and his own fists, and rescuing his little girl. Scriptwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (Besson also produced) update and urbanize the story a little, but keep the lumpish underlying ethos, although they completely lose the saving tongue-in-cheek campness of the original.

The result is one of the most repellent and mendacious films I have ever seen. The mendacity goes, turtle-like, all the way down. Liam's daughter, a beautiful American WASP teenage virgin, is kidnapped in Paris by filthy Albanians who want to force her into sex slavery, and who sell her on to a filthy, obese Arab sheik. Liam Neeson's character comes to Paris and kills them all in a souped-up fightathon that amounts to a celebration of ethnic cleansing. I honestly can't think of a more nakedly racist mainstream movie released this century. Of course, the film's central premise is not only a lie, it is a Big Lie and pernicious to boot: women are being trafficked for sex all over the world; but the victims are not white US girls from wealthy families, they are overwhelmingly poor third-world ones; and the men who pay for them and thereby enable the trade are not hairy Albanians and fat, leering Arab sheiks but, in large part, white Westerners, some of whom look (I don't doubt) distractingly like Liam Neeson. Next to this, the film's many other lies look almost commonplace -- that violence solves problems rather than creating them; that nobody in the world is to be trusted; that torture is a brisk and effective way of getting vital information (Liam electrocutes an Albanian to death, and shoots the wife -- the wife, mind you! -- of a corrupt French cop in the arm before terrorising her with death threats: on both occasions he gets the information he needs and proceeds heroically on). But the commonplaceness of these lies doesn't make them any less harmful. Horrible, horrible film.


Al R said...

"With Paris from Love" (2010) is even worse, a truly horrible and pointless film.

chris said...

Its complete balls. Man on Fire is much,much better.

Paul said...

I enjoyed Man on Fire years back. I accept many of the points you make Adam about 'Taken' but it didn't stop me and my wife enjoying the film.
(I'm not a racist and an married to a person from far away)
It's an action film therefore it's typically unrealistic with stereotypical enemies, impossible acts of violence and of course a happy ending where the 'good' guy rescues the damsel. Not all action films have humour and is such humour any more realistic or acceptable than Taken?

It's escapism pure and simple and I don't believe it depicts reality any more than Shrek.

Adam Roberts said...

Hi Paul: we may have to agree to disagree.

"It's escapism pure and simple." It is escapism, I agree, and I don't think escapism is a bad thing, necessarily. But here's the thing: I certainly don't think escapism of any stripe can ever be 'pure' or 'simple'.

Paul said...

Hi Adam

no worries, after a wretched day in a **** job, my mind isn't the most alert.

saying 'pure and simple' is a cliche. Simple is what I meant.
There's nothing complex in an action film

A said...

I don't recall the movie making any claims concerning the relative frequencies of white slavery versus other forms of human trafficking. To describe the movie as "lying" supposes a series of claims that don't exist.

White slavery does happen, and rich middle easterners have been accused of participating in such activities. Must every movie portray the most recent and accurate statistics of its subject matter? What happened to telling a specific story?

Nathaniel Katz said...

The movie was superficially amusing and deeply troubling, for me. Yes, A, it's true that not all movies must display characters in statistically appropriate roles, but there is nonetheless something troubling about a movie where the proportions are as unrepresentative as in this one. I wouldn't go so far as Mr. Roberts does, but I would say that there's something disquieting about having understandable anger about a serious problem directed entirely outward, to where Those People are, when the problem is in fact as much in our backyards as it is anywhere else.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

White slavery does happen, and rich middle easterners have been accused of participating in such activities.

The idea that it's cool to reinforce racist tropes because "hey, sometimes they're TRUE!" strikes me as a non-starter.

A said...

^That view implies that a movie is an inherently propagandist device. Alternatively, you may have assumed that an objective and rational audience would walk away from this movie with newly formed prejudices. Perhaps there is some truth in the first statement, but the second hasn't been defended in the blog post or in the comments.

If we care about freedom of expression, then we have to give artists some leeway in their obligation to survey audience prejudices. Absent any budding hysteria--e.g. 1929 Germany--the social responsibility of an artist is to optimally exercise his/her talents.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Forgive me if I'm misinterpreting you, but you appear to be saying something like "unless accompanied by a thesis statement and an appendix of statistics, art must automatically be assumed to be apolitical, regardless of what narratives it may appear to play into." If that's so, then gosh...I don't know what to say.

And nobody suggested censorship. That's a thing that you made up.

DC said...

I agree with your assessment of the essential mendacity of Taken, Adam, although I suspect it is a film of lies told knowingly: a wholly cynical exercise in genre film-making designed to appeal to, and probably mock, a certain sort of western (and primarily US) audience.

Liam Neeson's relationship with his daughter is dysfunctional from the beginning - profoundly infantilising and over-protective to the extent that a suggested holiday to Paris causes a crisis (some dig here, surely, at US cultural isolationism) - and the narrative resolution problematises it yet further. The fact that by the end of the film he turns out to have been right appears to establish his absolute moral authority over his silly daughter - not to mention his relatively normal wife and her relatively normal second husband - and it seems reasonable to imagine that will she never now become independent. And how seriously in any event are we to take her desire to be a Holly Valance style pop-singer - an implicitly vacuous ambition, stereotypically 'American', which, incidentally, her father co-opts entirely.

Likewise Liam Neeson's stop-at-nothing-ruthlessness must be at least self-conscious, and possibly satirical - apart from the Guantanamo style torture scene, the biggest clue that the filmmakers are (presumably gleefully) conscious of what they're up to is that we are repeatedly shown other young girls in exactly the same situation as the lost daughter, but who have no hero-father to rescue tham, and on whom Liam Neeson wastes no time.

Pure spectulation of course, and guessing at authorial intention, but I finished up with a sense that the filmmakers intended a sub-text reminiscent of Team America: World Police, and certainly managed a sort of subliminal sneer all the way through.

I think this probably makes the whole thing worse, by the way, not better.

Adam Roberts said...

DC: your reading of the film is more nuanced and, I think, better than mine; though I agree no more consoling.

A: "If we care about freedom of expression, then we have to give artists some leeway in their obligation to survey audience prejudices. Absent any budding hysteria--e.g. 1929 Germany--the social responsibility of an artist is to optimally exercise his/her talents."

As others have noted in this comments-thread, I nowhere advocate censorship; nor would I. Please don't strawman me.

You say: "the social responsibility of an artist is to optimally exercise his/her talents." But we can go further than this. The artist also has duties to authenticity, and its various valences. I'd want to add that the artist needs to do what s/he can to resist the conforming pressures of commercial reification, but conceivably you wouldn't agree, and certainly we can agree to disagree on that.

An example: guns. Guns appear with a breathtaking ubiquity in mainstream adult cinema, and they are almost always valorised. This has several effects, not necessarily positive ones: normalising these weapons, for instance, as well as glamorising them, but also building a discursive consensus that guns are 'about' freedom and empowerment rather (say) than being devices that kill, wound or intimidate other people and nothing else.

I recall watching the movie Seven ('Se7en' as I don't like to call it) and being astonished at the final scene, because it represented the action of a policeman taking his gun out of his holster and shooting the bad guy as a disempowering act. It's by far the most brilliant scene in that otherwise rather stodgily contrived film; and its brilliance acquires lustre precisely from the fact that a hundred thousand mainstream movies have been released in which the policeman taking his gun in his hand and shooting the bad-guy is troped as empowering, as righteous and gratifying. But violence is almost never these things, in life; and an entire discourse of cinema mendaciously denies that in the service of a spurious narrative excitement and the lazy gratification of a violent governing ideology. I'd say an artist has a responsibility to challenge society's complacencies and ideologies. At the risk of repeating myself: violence in the world almost always complexifies situations; in films it is very largely used as a dramatic strategy for simplifying them, and tying up loose ends.

Misanthrope said...

Adam, when I saw 'Taken' my reading of, and reaction to, the movie was exactly the same as yours. I also found the father's over-protectiveness and the big issue with her going to Paris, etc. eye-rollingly bad. One thing I thought when I went away from this was actually how much good political correctness actually has done for the world (even though its something everyone loves to hate). Also (and I may be stereotyping here) I felt the fact that this was a french production had a great deal to do with its neolithic attitude. There were too many red flags which would have been watered down in American productions (or am I wrong?)

David Chute said...

I'm scarcely an expert on the immigrant populations of Europe and how they are regarded. However: On the crude asumption that Algeria > France roughly as Vietnam > USA (setting the awkward French Indochina factor aside for the moment) wouldn't a truer equivilent for "Taken" be an American film in which a Vietnamese gang in (Los Angeles adjacent) Orange County takes a teenage girl during a home invasion? And in that case, wouldn't the implication be so clear as to barely need spelling out that the US has to some degree brought this upon itself? And might something similar apply to European audience reactions to "Taken"? And a realted question: Was there in fact an groundswell of outrage from Algerians in France when the movie was released there? And if not, may one ask why?

Adam Roberts said...

Misanthrope: a good point, I'd say.

David: the gang of sex-traffickers is Albanian, though; not Algerian.

David Chute said...

Yes, but then, I'm a Yank, and we can barely tell the difference.

Would it be legitimate to defend Morel and company simply as professional commercial moviemakers striving for maximum efficiency? They want the movie to be just authentic-looking enough to not seem silly, while also avoiding any complexities that would impede forward momentum. IOW, making it a gang of Swiss anarchists in lederhosen would get bad laughs and require too much exposition.

A said...

Adam, thanks for your thoughtful response.

Your description of an artist's obligation includes the need to survey audience prejudices, narrative biases amongst existing production, and the marginal impact of the artist's work on both issues. Ignoring the unfortunate suggestion of censorship via governmental(?) instruments you and GeoX gleaned from my previous comments, I find that such a view of the artist's role in society imposes an constraint on production that is normally unnecessary.

If the artist is no longer viewed as a creature of pure self-expression, but rather a social creature with responsibilities to the direction and character of popular beliefs, then doesn't art become an inherently propagandist device, as I accused GeoX of suggesting? If the artist's goal encompasses a desire to shape the audiences' minds, then isn't the artist a manipulative agent by design?

I don't believe that artists occupy that role, normally, or that they should, normally. Otherwise, art should be judged not merely from a craftsmanship point of view, but also from an ex-post evaluation of the magnitude and specificity of the effects of such manipulation.

Adam Roberts said...

David: yes, it's clearly an exercise in commercial product creation, and to judge by the box office a successful one.

A: I'm not sure we disagree all that much. Artists of course should be free to create art however they like. But there are differences between good art and bad art, and some of those differences are not wholly matters of subjective opinion. I suppose I'm arguing not just that Taken is reactionary and on the harmful side of 'social responsibility' argument, but that it is bad art.

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