Comic book movies and young adult adaptations are built to be franchises. And when more than half of 2014’s top 10 grossing films are sequels, it’s hard to blame Hollywood.
But no one expected “Taken” (2008) to get the franchise treatment. And no one expected it to shape this phase of Liam Neeson’s career.
Yet here we are. Now that “Taken 3” has arrived to cap off the B-movie trilogy, we get another chance to wonder where it all came from.
It’s difficult to nail down a single reason why “Taken” — a simple film about a man rescuing his kidnapped daughter — inspired such a cult following. Was an untapped fear of having our children stolen into the Albanian slave trade always lurking beneath our standard phobias of death and public speaking?
The simplicity of the plot certainly helped. The story was as linear as they come:
1. Teenager gets kidnapped on a trip abroad.
2. Retired Special Forces father blasts his way through every underworld thug in Europe to get her back.
3. Roll credits.
The 2013 sequel twisted the plot around, and made a lot more money on the international market. But that had more to do with the popularity of the original film than its own quality. In “Taken 2,” Mom and Dad get kidnapped, and the daughter has to be the hero — thanks to some helpful coaching from Papa, of course.
By “Taken 3,” the straight-line narrative of the original became a twist-and-turn thriller more reminiscent of “The Fugitive,” with Forest Whitaker brought on board to chase down the falsely accused hero as the franchise’s own Tommy Lee Jones. It’s a so-so effort, and the financial results remain to be seen. ("Taken 3" opened at $39 million, according to boxofficemojo.com.)
Any argument on why Luc Besson’s Euro action-fest inspired a $145 million domestic take and two sequels has to start and end with its protagonist: ex-Special Forces operative Bryan Mills.
We’ve been watching Neeson do quality work for decades — he was nominated for Best Actor in “Schindler’s List” 20 years ago — but with one iconic moment early in the first film, he became the 21st century’s answer to Dirty Harry.
Fans know the scene well. Neeson is on the phone with one of the kidnappers, only moments after they have taken his daughter (played in all of the films by Maggie Grace). His helpless flesh and blood is thousands of miles away, yet Neeson delivers his own "Do you feel lucky, punk?" with cold confidence:
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.
You didn’t have to have kids to connect with this. Anyone who has spent any time on a customer service hotline has wanted to say pretty much the same thing.
Without the speech, Bryan Mills might have been more comparable to Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” hero, a lone vigilante using the moral high ground to dish out justice on the bad guys. But with the speech, Neeson gets upgraded to Clint Eastwood territory.
In the wake of “Taken,” Neeson almost seems to have been typecast. The persona is so popular that all of his roles feel like spin-offs. “Non-Stop” was “Taken” on a plane. “The Grey” was “Taken” with wolves. If “Love Actually” had been released in 2010, Neeson’s character probably would have blasted his way through a dozen TSA personnel in order to help his son catch his crush at the airport.
Through all of this, we ignore the fact that the sight of a man Neeson’s age dispatching so many fit bad guys is so implausible. In fact, watching Neeson do the job instead of a Matt Damon or Tom Cruise-type is half the fun.
Neeson may be the new millenium’s Dirty Harry, but it’s interesting to note that all three of the Taken films landed with PG-13 ratings. They definitely pushed that envelope, though: the subject matter alone makes the ratings a surprise, and that’s before you start adding up Neeson’s body count.
You can call it a good thing or a bad thing, but the first “Taken” especially had the feel of an R-rated film without crossing the content threshold. Bryan Mills isn’t exactly an action hero for the whole family, but the fact that he’s always fighting for his family probably helps.
The tagline for “Taken 3” is “It ends here.” It’s a sweet sentiment and all, but fans know better. Time and money and nostalgia have a way of changing those kinds of plans.
For now, fans can remember the Taken trilogy as a guilty pleasure of a series that gave us a throwback ’70s-style action hero. The first movie was surprisingly good, and the sequels — well, at least the director’s name was pretty cool.
Given the usual expectations for January movies, it’s hard to complain.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.