So! Last weekend I did a lot of cleaning up around the house. I wanted a movie to watch while I was doing this, and decided on the 2008 action flick Taken starring Liam Neeson. This turned out to be a poor choice.
And then I also got interested in the movie because I’d heard that it dealt with trafficking. Which it did, although in a slightly backhanded way: Liam Neeson is Bryan, a former CIA agent and divorced father of a 17-year-old girl. He very reluctantly lets the daughter, Kim, go to Europe with her 19-year-old friend Amanda as her sole companion, urged on by the ex-wife who thinks that Bryan is being overprotective of the girl. Shortly after arriving in Paris, however, the two young women fall prey to a group of criminals who are in the habit of kidnapping attractive girls and selling them off as sex slaves. Bryan is informed by his CIA sources that in cases such as this one, one usually has about four days to track down the victims before they will be gone forever, forced into a (presumably short) hellish existence of drugging and prostitution. With this grim statistic in mind, the father sets out on a gun-toting, action-packed quest to retrieve his daughter.
“The next part is very important… They are going to take you”
I do think there’s a lot of potential in a story like this. There’s strong motivation for the main character to get involved in the plot, there’s the possibility of a moving depiction of the love between a father and his child, and there’s even a chance of raising awareness about the conditions of victims of trafficking.
And the movie actually starts out promising. Liam Neeson does a great job in the expositional part of the movie, playing the part of a somewhat defeated man, estranged from his wife and struggling to be a good dad to his only child after having been absent during most of Kim’s childhood because of his job at the CIA.
This also builds efficiently up to the peripeteia of the movie – the scene in which Kim and Amanda are kidnapped from their Paris apartment – which is equally well crafted and actually one of the most chilling scenes I’ve seen in any action movie. Kim happens to be on the phone with her father when she witnesses a terrified Amanda getting attacked and dragged off, and Bryan can only listen helplessly as Kim tells him that the kidnappers are coming for her as well. Drawing on his CIA experience, Bryan records the call, then instructs her to win some time by hiding under a bed in the nearest bedroom. But as he informs her, wincing with terror and sorrow:
Now, the next part is very important … they are going to take you. Kim, stay focused, baby, this is key. You have five, maybe ten very important seconds. Leave the phone on the floor, concentrate. Shout out everything you see about them: Hair colour, (…), scars, anything you see. You understand?”
The monologue effectively sets up Bryan as a competent crime fighter, but it’s also absolutely chillingly set up. You don’t have to be a parent in order to be able to imagine how horrible it must be to listen to your child’s kidnapping, and to have to tell her that you have no way of preventing it. And it’s just as easy to identify with Kim’s horror as she realizes that nobody can stop the strangers from hauling her off to an unknown fate.
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.
The line is totally over the top and campy, of course, but as an action movie line it works and is kind of charming.
The criminal on the other end of the line, Marko, of the line pauses dramatically before replying with an evil “Good luck”.
And this can be pinpointed as the exact moment when the movie starts sucking hard and loses every hint of believability.
I get that trafficking criminals are evil and ruthless, but I don’t really see them as supervillains who revel so much in their own evilness that they would actually take the time to wish a victim’s father a vicious “Good luck”, mid-kidnapping. In fact, I would think that traffickers are probably mostly in it for the money, and that they would want to get the hell out of the crime scene if they had just successfully kidnapped too teenage girls, one of whom had already alerted somebody over the phone.
But that’s a kind of finesse there’s obviously not room for in Taken. The villains have little resemblance with the malnourished, downtrodden thugs of the real world of crime, and as Bryan starts chasing them across Paris, they skillfully and athletically jump off highway bridges and on to moving trucks, dodge bullets, aim perfectly, taunting Bryan all the while. As if they’re quite used to their victim’s middle-aged dads coming after them 007 style and in fact take pleasure in his distress.
The Hollywood hero and the justification of torture
I can’t help but feel that this bears witness a view of the world that I find extremely dangerous, namely one in which fixed concepts of enemies thrive and are even encouraged. Kim’s kidnappers are Albanian mobsters, Kim is later manhandled by a lustful Arab sheikh, and the entire movie just reeks of a very unhealthy kind of post-millennium xenophobia mixed with a portion of post 9/11 paranoia. In such a world view there are no grey areas, no subleties, no nuances. The villains are villains and they are foreign and certainly not western, and they will rape your daughter and laugh in your face while doing so. And so anything goes for our western hero who is automatically in the right.
This is most glaring in the scene in which Bryan has managed to capture Marko. I was absolutely appalled as I watched the hero of the movie tie his opponent to a chair and then continue to subject him to torture by giving him severe electric shocks through nails hammered into his thighs. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still shakes me to my very core to find that we’re living in a society in which we can still have a mainstream movie protagonist torture another human being.
The valuable virgin and the worthless whore
I’d be able to forgive at least parts of the above flaws in this movie if at least the issue of trafficking was dealt with tastefully. Not so, however. Since the traffickers seem to be in the business solely in order to torment Bryan, I suppose it makes sense that Kim would have to be the only victim that matters in the story. Still, it’s galling to see Bryan largely ignore every other victim of trafficking he encoutners. He makes contact with one other girl, whom he rescues – but only because he suspects that she has information about his daughter.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, there’s a truly icky tendency in the movie towards a stigmatization of sexually active women. Kim is ultimately saved because she is a virgin and thus too valuable to be put into immediate prostitution. Meanwhile, Kim’s friend Amanda is a sexually aggressive young woman – we learn as much from a piece of dialogue between the two girls upon their arrival in Paris:
“Amanda: I’m gonna sleep with [Peter].
Kim: You just met him!
Amanda: I hear French guys are amazing. Maybe he has a friend, huh?
Kim: No, no.
Amanda: Oh, come on! You gotta lose it some time. Might as well be in Paris.”
‘How dare Amanda want to sleep with a cute French guy?’ gasps Hollywood and clutches its pearls indignantly. And sure enough, when Bryan finds Amanda, she is sprawled on her prostitute bed, dead from an overdoze.
He doesn’t even make an attempt to bring her body to safety, for fear lest, I suppose, he will catch syphilis from this dirty whore of a teenage girl. Virgins may be more valuable than non-virgins to the evil, evil Arab sheikhs in the movie, but our hero seems to make pretty much the same misogynic distinction. I wish the film would have included a scene in which Bryan is confronted by Amanda’s grieving parents whom he has robbed of the chance to bid a final farewell to their daughter. But of course then there wouldn’t have been time for the very relevant and deifying ending in which Bryan takes his virginal daughter to be given singing lessons by a famous American pop star.
No, I’m not kidding. That’s the actual ending of this action thriller about trafficking.