What do you do if your 17-year-old daughter flies to Paris with another teen friend and is kidnapped by sex traffickers within hours of arriving? Well, if you're retired CIA agent Bryan Mills, you go get her—brutally dispatching every one of the interlopers involved. That's the premise in Taken.
But let's rewind the tape a bit.
Bryan Mills was a good CIA agent. But until now, he hasn't been such a great father. Years spent overseas have taken a toll on his family relationships. So on the eve of daughter Kim's 17th birthday, he's turned over a new leaf: retiring from the Agency and moving to Los Angeles, where he hopes to repair the damage his absence has done. His five-year marriage to Kim's mom went up in smoke years ago. But he clings to the idea that devoting all his energy and affection to Kim might somehow salvage something. Anything.
Before he can get started, though, Kim hatches a plan of her own: a trip to Europe with her best bud Amanda to see Paris and stay with her cousins there. Her world-wary dad doesn't like the idea one bit. But his daughter's enthusiasm and his ex-wife's haranguing make him relent—on the condition that Kim calls him daily with updates on her whereabouts.
She, of course, forgets his instructions the moment her plane touches down on French soil. And soon, she and Amanda meet a nice, helpful young Frenchman named Peter who graciously offers to share a cab with them and split the fare.
Kim and Amanda have hardly said goodbye to Peter and begun to unpack at her cousins' commodious abode (they're not home) when the phone rings: Dad. Kim's annoyance with her hyper-vigilant father, however, melts into desperation when she witnesses Amanda being kidnapped in another room.
"There's someone here. Oh my god, they got Amanda. They're coming."
"All right," Dad instructs. "Listen to me. Go to the next bedroom, under the bed. Tell me when you're there. Now, the next part is very important: They're going to take you."
And they do.
Throughout Taken, Bryan demonstrates deep devotion to Kim—both before and after her abduction. We watch as he looks longingly at old birthday pictures and home movies of her. Knowing that she longs to be a pop singer, he gets Kim a state-of-the-art karaoke machine and uses a hard-won connection to give her a leg up in the industry. But far beyond that, Bryan's ferocious love for his daughter compels him past every obstacle once she's been abducted.
With help from CIA friends, Bryan learns that Kim's kidnappers are likely a group of human traffickers from Albania ... and that he has about 96 hours to find her before she disappears into the black hole of sex slavery. And so he uses clues from his short conversation with one of her kidnappers to piece together, CSI-style, important clues that eventually point the way to her location.
In the process, Taken shines a revelatory light on the scourge of human trafficking, a ruthless underworld where even one innocent mistake condemns a girl to a life of drugged sex bondage. Further to its credit, the filmmakers exercise some restraint in the ways they depict these young women's forced prostitution. (More on that in "Sexual Content.")
In his search for Kim, Bryan rescues a young woman who's ended up with Kim's coat. He takes her to a hotel room where he sets up an IV to help get the drugs out of her system. Bryan is motivated in part by his need for information from the woman, but it's clear that he's tenderly treating her the same way he would his own daughter.
Amanda excitedly tells Kim that she intends to sleep with Peter. And she chides Kim for clinging to her virginity, saying, "You gotta lose it sometime, it might as well be in Paris." After Kim is kidnapped, we learn that she'll fetch a much higher price on the sex-slave market because she's been inspected and found to be "pure."
Bryan feigns propositioning a prostitute in Paris, and their conversation includes sex-related euphemisms. (We see her and several others in garish, revealing clothes.) Later, he discovers a brothel of sorts where newly "recruited" girls are forced into small, curtain-separated cubicles as a long line of "customers" waits to have sex with them. Bryan pulls curtains back from several of these dens to reveal women in various states of undress as men paw at them. There's no explicit nudity, but the implications are horrific.
Women wear cleavage-baring outfits. A pop star wears a short skirt, and is later seen in a bathrobe. Kim and several others (presumably also virgins) are auctioned off in a dark room. We briefly see Kim in a bra and panties, another girl in a G-string and bra. The girls are later veiled and dressed in a sort of ceremonial garb as they're presented to a sheikh who's purchased them.
We hear several crude references to sexual anatomy.
Liam Neeson (who plays Bryan) is remarkably believable as a former CIA agent who has, in his own words, honed a "particular set of skills." What he means is this: He knows how to kill.
Once Bryan picks up his daughter's trail, the ensuing violence is nonstop and intense, if not particularly gory (probably the only thing that preserved this film's surprising PG-13 rating). Bryan takes down a slew of baddies with guns. Others get stabbed in the chest. He breaks the necks of quite a few; even more are knocked out (if not killed) as he slams their heads into various hard objects—or coldcocks them with a gun. Several melees involve intense fist-and-foot combat flurries. Bryan crushes bad guys' tracheas twice. A man fleeing him on a freeway suddenly gets plastered by a semi. Two reckless car chases involve Bryan piloting stolen vehicles against traffic on a French freeway. In one chase, a man rams his truck into the protruding prongs of a front-end loader's scoop.
Another skill Bryan has perfected? Forcibly extracting information. In one scene, a kidnapper sitting on a metal chair is repeatedly subjected to electroshock torture as Bryan questions him about Kim's whereabouts (threatening to pull his fingernails out if he doesn't come clean). Even after the man confesses everything he knows and pleads for mercy, Bryan flips the electrical switch back on ... and then leaves the room for good.
Also worth noting: Bryan shoots a man in the head who's holding a young woman hostage. The coercive abductions of Kim and Amanda are disturbing. Bryan eventually finds Amanda, but she's already died of a forced drug overdose.
A former colleague named Jean-Claude, who's now high up in the French security agency, refuses to help Bryan and is intent upon arresting him. In a shocking scene that could have come straight out of TV's 24, Bryan shoots the man's wife in the arm ("It's just a flesh wound," he helpfully explains) to force Jean-Claude to cough up information he needs.
Crude or Profane Language
Five s-words. About a dozen misuses of God's name. (Once it is paired with "d--n.") Roughly 10 other vulgarities are uttered ("a--hole," "d--n," "h---," "p---"), and Bryan makes an obscene gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several henchmen from the sex-trafficking ring drink beer. A couple of scenes show people drinking wine and champagne at parties. Abducted women have clearly been drugged and are kept perpetually incapacitated. We see a needle going into a girl's arm as Bryan sets up an IV for her.
Other Negative Elements
Bryan flouts both laws and ethics in his efforts to save Kim. He repeatedly steals cars, breaks into houses and endangers innocent civilians in car chases. The film implies that these choices are all acceptable given the gravity of his mission.
Bryan discovers that Kim has lied to him about her intentions in Europe. She and Amanda have actually planned to follow U2 around the continent—a plan her mother was in on and which she kept from Bryan because of his past attempts at controlling Kim's behavior.
Jean-Claude is depicted as a well-heeled bureaucrat whose only concern is for his family's comfort. It's implied that the Frenchman is aware of the sex trafficking going on in Paris, but he's doing nothing to stop it because many of those with whom he works are profiting from it and his job security depends on his passive inaction.
Taken deserves credit for decrying the horrors of sex trafficking, a subject that has received increasing press coverage recently. According to imdb.com, actress Famke Janssen (who plays Bryan's ex-wife) was inspired by her participation in the film to get involved with this heartrending problem, to the point of becoming a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Office Against Drugs and Crime. It's conceivable that some who see this film will be similarly moved.
But while Taken's subject matter is all too real, the solution proffered here is pure Hollywood fantasy. Liam Neeson is part Jason Bourne, part Charles Bronson and part Jack Bauer. And if 24's Jack Bauer has tried to teach us anything, it's that the end justifies the means. As long as your cause is just, you can do anything you want to the bad guys. Anything.
That's definitely Bryan Mills' modus operandi. His foes are bad, bad men who cavalierly destroy women's lives for money. It's not personal, it's just business, one loathsome broker tells Bryan. So it's hard to shed any tears when Bryan breaks their necks, smashes their throats, stabs them and shoots them. These men deserve all that and more, right?
Neeson echoed these sentiments in an interview with madeinatlantis.com. "As a father, you can't imagine anything worse," he said. "Of course, you wonder what your own reaction would be in that situation. You picture what you'd do to her kidnappers, and you soon come to the conclusion that you'd do anything in your power to save your child. I found this particularly interesting territory, because I'm traditionally against violence, especially the kind of violence Bryan resorts to in the movie. But it's a case of 'them or me' and Bryan takes that situation to its logical conclusion."
The film asks us to believe that Bryan's killing spree in pursuit of Kim is something more than mere vigilantism, something akin to righteous retribution. And in the process it invites us to revel in the brutal beat down Bryan administers—mortally—over and over and over again.
So I wonder how many people will walk out of this film constructively brooding over the wicked underworld of forced sexual slavery. I think it's more likely that they'll leave with a mixture of surging adrenaline and voyeuristic satisfaction after Bryan makes good on his promise to his daughter's abductors: "I will find you. And I will kill you."