Like a stripper bounding from a child’s birthday cake, Taken, the latest lowest-common-denominator genre product from Luc Besson’s Europa Corp assembly line (Transporter, Taxi), has the ignoble distinction of being the first true Bush-era holdover to open after Obama’s inauguration. The historical record will note that Taken beat the similarly incongruous Confessions of a Shopaholic by three whole weeks, even if the latter is certain to inspire greater scorn. While a recessionary film that presumably glorifies conspicuous consumption deserves whatever grief it gets, it’s notable that a vengeful, murderous, morally unconflicted, unilateralist torturer can still sneak into theaters with nary a scalding think piece and top the box office charts. One film is genre porn for girls and the other is for boys, and we all know toward which the culture at large is more forgiving. Skull crushing won’t go out of style just because we’ve supposedly transitioned to a more responsible, Guantanamo-free era, yet few forthcoming films are likely to rally around Taken’s Cheney-Rumsfeld ethos, sporting a protagonist proud to have been a fire-first “Preventer” for the U.S.A.
What’s odd about Taken—so odd that the jingoism does get dulled somewhat—is its filtered, import-export awkwardness. A French production about a retired American hero (played by Irishman Liam Neeson) who descends upon Paris to save his innocent backpacking daughter from slave-trading Albanians, conspiring Frenchmen, predatory sheiks, and greedy Americans, the film aspires to B-grade Bourne but comes across as a housebound hack’s thrice translated pipe dream. Do 17-year-old Valley Girls really care about U2, let alone embark on an ill-fated, daddy-disapproved pilgrimage to trail their European tour? Do middle-aged men—particularly middle-aged ex-government assassins —actually wear Hawaiian shirts? Do Albanian thugs all have crescent and star tattoos on their thumbs and scowl across card tables? Must drugged-out prostitutes all have zombie eyes? Do international slave auctions really take place on the set of Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” video? Some may see a Spaghetti Western’s purity in reverently taking genre clichés to their extremes—dislocations and misreadings be damned—but Taken can’t muster or even ape poetic or formal grace. Even worse, it takes its silly self seriously.