Who are your favourite big screen tough guys? Bogart? Cagney? Eastwood? Maybe the muscle men action hero types: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, van Damme? The martial arts brigade, perhaps: Lee, Li, Chan? How about heroic bloodshed poster boy Chow Yuen Fat? Takeshi Kitano?
No doubt all of them would stake their claim to the title. So let’s leave them queuing up outside the Movie Tough Guy Club while Liam Neeson strolls right in with a VIP pass, a fucking big gun, a thousand-yard stare and a palpable disinclination to put up with anybody’s shit.
On the basis of ‘Taken’ alone – although there are plentiful indicators in his back catalogue, from ‘Darkman’ to ‘Batman Begins’ – Liam Neeson is the big screen tough guy I’d want in my corner if the chips were down and the bullets were flying.
‘Taken’ – directed by Pierre Morel from a script by co-written by Gaellic genre factory Luc Besson – gives us Neeson as Bryan Mills, a former secret service operative estranged from his high-maintenance wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and doing his best to be there for his seventeen year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and resenting the pull on her affections exerted by millionaire step-father Stuart (Xander Berkeley).
When Kim decides she wants to travel to Paris with her school friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) – a trip devoid of adult supervision – Stuart and Lenore blithely okay it. Mills, however, is dubious. Lenore and Kim pressure him and reluctantly he consents to the trip. His worst fears are confirmed during Kim’s first night on French soil when she and Amanda are abducted by Albanian gangster types who supply brothels with doped up American girls and auction off the better looking abductees to Arab sheikhs. (And, yes, the depiction of said foreign nationals is every bit as stereotyped as that last sentence implies.)
Mills is on the phone to Kim when the Albanians come calling and the connection remains unbroken long enough for him to deliver this little homily: “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
This is the point at which Liam Neeson becomes the Angel of fuckin’ Vengenace. There’s a lot of actors who would have made a meal of that monologue; delivered it through clenched teeth. Neeson delivers it with the cool deadly formality of someone who would rip your heart out and serve it to you on a skewer rammed into your scrotum rather than look at you. Someone would won’t break a sweat at doing such a thing, nor consider it particularly excessive. Remember that line Michael Caine has in ‘Get Carter’ before he decks the fat bloke: “You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape. With me, it’s a full-time job.” Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills as the kind of guy for whom it’s a full-time job.
‘Taken’ unfolds with all the grim determination of its protagonist. Such criticisms as can be levelled – twenty-somethings Grace and Cassidy don’t quite convince as naïve teenagers; Holly Valance is bland in a supporting role; the bad guys are one-dimensional – are hardly valid when ‘Taken’ not only achieves exactly what it sets out to do (ie. serve as a delivery system for action scenes), but does so with such honesty, immediacy and lack of pretentiousness that its plethora of chases (vehicular and pedestrian), shoot-outs and hand-to-hand smack-downs add up to a full-throttle action/revenge movie that make most examples of its ilk look tired and anaemic by comparison. ‘Taken’ is about as good as this kind of movie gets.