The action vehicle Taken (France 2008, US 2009) casts Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, a retired special intelligence operative in search of his abducted teenage daughter. It’s about a man combating an essentially immoral or amoral world, and under cinematic law we expect him to reimpose a moral dynamic over those circumstances.
Nope. He’s just here to kill people. For any moral response to a similar set of circumstances, we have to look to similarly endowed action hero Frank Martin — aka The Transporter (2002) — who responds to moral offense just like we, the audience, hope we would. If we were superserious badasses who were basically immune to death, that is.
What makes Frank Martin (Jason Statham) a more moral character than Bryan Mills? First, ask about the similarities. The two have equally badass-making character backgrounds, emerging from the worlds of military special forces and black ops intelligence. Both have been molded into deadly specimens of manhood, and we may presume have under orders done really terrible things to other people, for some “higher” purpose. The two appear equally adept at kicking ass — although Frank tends to do his asskickery with more flourish (roundhouse kicks, quarterstaff clubbings, wielding a dead bad guy’s body as a weapon against a live one, etc.), whereas Bryan gets his work done in the shadows, up close, clean and quick, snapping a femur or crushing a testicle just outside the camera frame.
Both characters were created in part by writer-producer Luc Besson. So Taken is essentially the Transporter sequel you’d get if Frank Martin set aside his career as a high-priced deliveryman, fathered a child, and then lost his offspring to sex slavery. Except for that to happen, Frank’s own better nature would have to be cruelly sanded away. Compared to him, Bryan Mills is a monster.
Frank’s code of conduct forbids him from opening a package in his care. When he breaks that rule and an attractive woman named Lai (Shu Qi) tumbles out of his car trunk, Frank’s rattled, but he delivers her anyway. But the injustice tugs at him, and he’s soon pulled along to address a larger injustice, posed by human smugglers and a container full of Asian immigrants who are likely to die en route. Frank’s personal journey is one of Doing The Right Thing — something he’s in fact driven to do, as much as it may run counter to his professional code.
Bryan’s odyssey into the world of sex traffickers reveals, through his keen detective work, layers upon layers of exploitation. French lookouts cajole information from women arriving in Paris. Albanian gangsters capitalize on that information by capturing the women, injecting them with drugs, and selling them to high-rolling buyers. French government officials profit, taking a percentage to allow the Albanians to practice their trade.
Bryan Mills wades into this cesspool and kills all the snakes inhabiting it, but he does nothing to drain the pool itself. He only wants his daughter. He rescues one of the captured girls who might have seen his daughter, pumps her with IV fluids until she’s lucid enough to talk, then … what? Does he call her parents? Give her bus fare? Drop her off at a hospital where she can be ushered safely through her inevitable withdrawals? Doesn’t matter … she’s not his daughter. He learns that an old friend in French intelligence is wetting his beak on the slave trade, as are many others in high places. He shoots his friend’s wife to terrorize more information out of him … but doesn’t turn him in to his bosses, release his name to the papers, nothing. That wouldn’t get his daughter back. He leaps onto a yacht on the Seine owned by a lecherous Arab sheikh, kills everybody on board, and takes his daughter home. What about the other three or four imprisoned young women on the boat? Meh … they’re not his daughter.
Let’s acknowledge where the movies diverge. The Transporter takes place in a fantasyland, part comic book, part Ian Fleming adventure. There is no expectation that Frank will truly be harmed, or fail in his mission once his sights are set. Both he and his adversaries are superhuman, but he just happens to be that much more super because he winds up on the side of Right. Taken wants to be an artifact of our world, or at least a world easily mistaken for ours, where evil forces prey on the naive. Neeson, older and heavier than Statham, looks intimidating but still vulnerable, and when Bryan Mills catches some lead in the course of his rescue, there’s always a thought in our minds that he might not make it home.
But he is a far less moral man than Frank Martin. His only yardstick for doing good is to preserve his own child. He has every chance to end the machinery that exploits the children of others, but he doesn’t take it. Everyone who intended harm to his daughter winds up dead, but they were not killed so that all their victims might have freedom. They just kidnapped the wrong girl.
Luc Besson’s first major film, The Professional, was about this kind of covert superman grappling with moral questions. Besson’s heroes today don’t grapple with questions, because they are themselves the answer. The best we can expect of them is that they throw open the door for a shipment of human chattel to walk free, like Frank — or rather, like his beautiful cargo Lai — does in The Transporter. But sadly, Taken doesn’t want to shed sunlight anywhere, unless it can bring a smile to just one, special girl.
What Else Is Going On: I stared into the night-black soul of Vampire Circus (1972) and found there a parable of the Jewish diaspora, in a review for Film Freak Central.