The James Clayton Column: Bryan Mills – bad dad and dubious action hero

Feature James Clayton 5 Oct 2012 - 07:59

Is Taken’s Bryan Mills really a hero, or is he a deranged father on a murderous rampage? James reveals all…

Taken 2 is hitting screens, and that means Bryan Mills is hitting people again. It’s a brilliant sight to behold, and there’s a lot of pleasure to be had when Mills (Liam Neeson) is battering bad guys in brutal fashion, mercilessly employing his “particular set of skills” in visceral style.

Back in 2008, Taken turned Neeson into a later-career action icon, and gave needy cinema audiences a glorious shot of ultraviolence. Cranking out a follow-up to the cult hit was a no-brainer and Taken 2 (aka Taken Again or Look Who’s Taken Too) moves Mills and his beloved family to Istanbul where everyone’s favourite angry dad will go another round with Eastern European hoodlums.

Watching Mills punch and kick his way around the scuzziest parts of Paris was fun, and the fact that it was scumbag sex traffickers who were getting smacked around was a bonus. Though a 12A certificate suggests the brutality may be dampened a little, I’m looking forward to seeing Neeson’s paternal powerhouse unleash his fury on the bad’uns again in Taken 2, this time with the Bosporus and Turkish bazaars providing the backdrop.

The character makes for an appealing avenging angel, and we’re instantly on Bryan’s side, cheering him on as he beats up swathes of bad guys and conducts tantric electrocution torture on the creep who kidnapped his daughter. He’s played by the ever-reliable, ever-likable Liam Neeson. He’s got impressive action moves and a cool adept ability to employ his publicised particular set of skills. This is enough to encourage us to back Mills, but the additional emphasis on the fact that he’s a caring family man fuelled by vengeance and a zealous desire to protect threatened loved ones further makes him a sympathetic hero.

It seems straightforward but, alas, things aren’t quite so simple if you look deeper into Taken. Reflecting on the events and overall outlook of this thumping revenge thriller, you find certain snags and begin to see that clear-cut Bryan Mills is actually a problematic individual.

He may have arranged singing lessons with Holly Valance for his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), then crossed the globe in order to save her abducted ass, but is Bryan Mills really ‘the Best Dad in the World’ as popularly proclaimed?

Few good parenting guidebooks would identify the ideal father figure as someone who misses most of their offspring’s childhood in favour of action man adventuring. Mills put his CIA work before little Kim and his wife Lennie (Famke Jannsen) so it’s no surprise that they shacked up with a wealthy Californian gentleman who could provide all the love, support and garden party social gatherings they needed.

Mills’ workaholic want-awayism undoubtedly caused a great amount of heartbreak to others reliant on him, and at the beginning of Taken, it’s evident that his actions have taken a heavy toll. He doesn’t know his daughter and is so clueless that he thinks a really cheap kid’s karaoke machine cuts it as a decent 17th birthday present. Every good dad knows that 17-year-olds need either a car, a pet pony or a pimp. Out of touch and existing mainly as an irritating nag on answer phone messages, Mills is more an estranged alpha male in crisis than an ideal father figure.

This alienation is all down to Bryan’s negligence, and it’s sad to see that Kim is so psychologically traumatised that - alongside the rich stepfather who gifts her ponies - she’s adopted Bono as a surrogate fantasy father to fill the void. (Only desperate and damaged people would follow U2’s entire European tour. The ‘Bono as dream father figure’ theory is the only way I can make this absurd notion believable in my mind.)

Still, at least Bryan tries, gets a singing lesson with a top popstar for Kim and redeems himself when it counts. Nevertheless, there are other factors encouraging further doubt making me question whether Mills really is a ‘good guy’. For a start, his obsessive paranoia is verging on extreme and goes beyond the level of being an understandable character defect. We all have our personality flaws, but Bryan’s overzealous nature is what I would describe as manic and unhinged.

Viewed from a different angle, Mills is a maladjusted neurotic enacting Eastern European genocide. Even if you don’t give much credence to critiques of Taken that suggest it has a xenophobic subtext, it’s hard not to agree that the aggressive ‘ends justify the means’ attitude of Neeson’s protagonist is over-the-top and unreasonable.

That’s definitely my view as a humanitarian liberal (or pinko commie rat fink, if you prefer) and I’m troubled by Mills’ lack of concern for human rights and his use of torture in pursuit of vigilante justice. I’ve had similar problems with other cinematic icons - from Dirty Harry to Batman in The Dark Knight - and Nick Love’s recent modern update of The Sweeney provided another pertinent case in which ethical doubts prompted me to dealign myself with the alleged heroes.

Watching Ray Winstone and Ben “Plan B” Drew bounce about London in a pro-police brutality advert, I began to realise that I didn’t personally like the characters or their (lack of) principles. It’s not the only time I’ve found myself with radically different politics to the action movie protagonists I’m meant to empathise with.

My first experience of this was probably GoldenEye, where I came round to supporting Alec Trevelyan’s supervillain scheme - using a Soviet satellite to attack the Bank of England and send the economic system back to the Stone Age. Boo to James Bond, servant of a decadent, archaic and undemocratic monarchy! Hooray for Sean Bean, bold avenger attacking the capitalist structures that subjugate us!

Ideologically, I ask myself, do I want my action heroes to be like 007 or the geezers of The Sweeney? No, because my ideal action hero would probably be a Pocahontas-style peacekeeper aided by cutesy raccoon and hummingbird sidekicks, overcoming evil with the power of song and the preached wisdom of Grandmother Willow.

In my imagination, the likes of Dirty Harry and Rambo are reborn as sandal-wearing, singing vegans who use orgone energy and psychic powers of compassionate love instead of guns to triumph over baddies.

Sadly these silly fantasies will never be box office hits, but I’m okay with that and I can enjoy action films with dubious politics and ideological undercurrents. Movies allow you the opportunity to indulge in some escapist wish-fulfilment and momentarily embrace that which would be unseemly or abhorrent in real life.

This week, then, I’ll be momentarily suspending my hang-ups about peaceful resolution, human rights and suchlike to support Bryan Mills’ campaign to violently oppose criminal scum in Istanbul. He’s not a good father and he’s clearly got issues, but I’ll happily adopt him as a hero for an action-packed 90 minutes.

James Clayton didn’t get a pony for his 17th birthday, but doesn’t mind because he has a particular set of skills which he will one day use to fight evil and obliterate the oppressive international economic system. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

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