The Taken trilogy, wish-fulfilment and wish wariness

The arrival of Taken 3 leaves James pondering the appeal of vigilante movies...

Taken 3 is set to take cinemas by storm, with force and with Bryan Mills showcasing that particular set of skills and his especial resolve. Mills is, of course, played by the indomitable Liam Neeson, and the plot for this threequel revolves around the battle to clear his good (?) name.

He’s been accused of a brutal murder that he didn’t commit or witness, so now Mills is going to use that infamous skillset to hunt and find the real killer, all while evading the authorities who’d put him behind bars and his film franchise on hiatus. Oh, and the murder victim was his ex-wife Lennie (Famke Janssen), so there’s bonus devastation and a whole can of emotional worms for the man to wrestle with.

For the third movie, then, it isn’t just a family member that’s been forcibly ‘Taken’ from Mills but also his own liberty and his reputation. High stakes indeed, and it’s definitely a nice move to keep things interesting and add something new to the mix in a film series that could very easily flatline at this point. At least, for the moment, we can put all the jokes about Neeson’s dog or toothbrush getting taken to one side. What we’re getting here is major-league grief and a double-sided manhunt with Neeson on the warpath hungry for retribution. 

I look forward to seeing that, but I also feel bad for Mills. I’m sure it’s a hugely upsetting ordeal for him but, simultaneously, I just know that he’s also relishing this. Secretly, the ex-government operative and one-man vengeance-machine was hoping something like this would happen. When the camera’s not rolling and when nobody’s watching, Bryan Mills wishes upon a star for action. He wishes for danger. He wishes that unfortunate occurrences (like abductions and murders) will interrupt his life and force him to react.

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We know that he was wishing that Taken 3 would happen. We were also wishing that Taken 3 would happen, even if we were afraid to admit it or weren’t even aware of the subliminal yearning. In total, Taken 3 – and indeed the entire Taken series – is all about wish-fulfilment both for its fictional lead, for the filmmakers and for the spectators in the cinema. It’s also a prime cinematic exploration of the ‘Be careful what you wish for’ moral.

Having thought about it (perhaps way too) deeply, I’ve come to the conclusion that Taken is like a modern filmic equivalent of The Monkey’s Paw – the classic short story by W.W. Jacobs that stands as the ultimate fictional fable illustrating that ‘Be careful what you wish for’ notion. Of course, with Taken we get Neeson brawling and waves of Eastern European gangsters and there are no supernatural relics in sight. (Though I’m getting fun mental pictures of Bryan Mills kissing a dead chimp’s fingers and praying that his beloved Lennie will come back to him.) Even so, with the familial element and the fact that the desperate longing brings unexpected horrific consequences, I see potent parallels.

You may be of the opinion that I’m just clutching at straws (or primate hairs) to find some credibility for a movie series that’s popularly regarded with a great amount of scepticism. I probably am, but I’d still contend that this franchise has a lot going for it on an intellectual front and that the films have psychological and social relevance. Throwaway action flicks these movies ain’t – what we’re actually dealing with are profound studies that delve deep into the human condition and the difficult quandaries that come with our human desires. 

I’ll get to you, me and the rest of the moviewatching world a little later on because, really, Liam Neeson comes first, as well he should. I’ve written before about the Northern Irish actor’s status as the modern masculinity crisis manifest on screen, and Bryan Mills is the protagonist that best exemplifies and most clearly defines the archetype.

He’s a conflicted middle-aged man trying to consolidate traditional masculinity with his status as a father to a modern young adult daughter and the fact that he’s a natural born killer. Mills wants to be a good daddy but, after years of neglecting little Kim, he’s now too late to play the idealised role because she’s all grown up and no longer an ‘ickle girl who likes cheap karaoke machines. Even by the end of Taken 2 poor Bryan is still trying to get his head around his daughter’s maturity and the fact that she wants to travel on her own and hook up with boyfriends.

It’s a challenge for Mills to not want to kill said boyfriend. In fact, it’s a challenge for him to not want to kill anyone, because he can’t just shrug off his identity as an elite assassin. As a person he’s been forged and conditioned by his long career and, despite his glum demeanour and quiet protests, he loves that job. Even when he’s ‘retired’ he still works as security so he can stay connected to a perpetual sense of threat and peril.

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Listen to that iconic phone call in the first movie and you’ll hear a man who lives to be a violent enforcer of law and order – an itchy trigger finger primed to pursue, look, find and kill. That particular set of skills that he’s acquired – skills that make him a nightmare for people like you and me – need to be used and he doesn’t want to waste them.

What’s the point of learning a language if you’re never going to speak it? Why bother buying a bread machine if you’re never going to actually use it to bake any brioche? (Perfect for Kim if she’s craving French cuisine after her Paris adventure.) Likewise, what’s the point of having the instincts and carefully-honed abilities of an assassin if you’re never going to fight and execute anyone? Mills wishes to show off his trademark talents – or at least exercise them – and, thus, finding himself back in the notional field and doing what he does best is very welcome. 

The only problem is that his soldier side does not sit easily alongside his domestic side, and that troubles him. Big Man Mills reckons that the two desired identities are incompatible but, then again, if he actually sat back and watched his films he’d see that it might not be so. All things considered, it’s only his deadly persona and his ultraviolent skillset that make him of any use to Lennie and Kim.

This conventional family has collapsed and Bryan isn’t needed (or even wanted) as a breadwinner or as a loving husband or doting father. However, when shit goes down – or, more precisely, when people get taken – he’s brought closer to the indifferent souls that he loves so much and longs to be with. Then he gets to function as a patriarchal protector and saviour – all the while play-pretending that it’s happy families and that he’s fulfilling his daddy duties as an alpha-male head of the hypothetical house.

It’s an ironic shame that to make his familial wishes come true he has to become the one-man Albanian genocide. You can chalk that up in the column of unfortunate side effects, I suppose, though I have a feeling that Mills isn’t too bothered about the fact he’s offering ethnic cleansing for the entertainment of cinemagoing audiences. What’s more, those viewers probably aren’t fussed either, because what they’re witnessing is their own dark desires becoming manifest and being acted out by the eternally-appealing Liam Neeson.

What the Dirty Harry and Death Wish series were for ages past the Taken series is for the contemporary era. It’s a franchise built around a star with a certain rugged machismo and it revolves around revenge and a righteous conviction to punish the bad guys without compromise (or, at least, much in the way of compromise and compunction). From Batman to Travis Bickle and from Rorschach to Jack Reacher, people love vigilantes, and eagerly lap up their morally-dubious tales as escapist vicarious fantasies. 

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Sometimes, the idea of taking the law into one’s own hands and bringing down the scum of the world regardless of the rulebooks, moral concerns and social niceties is a enticing one. Regular folk can’t really do that so they have to pin their wishes on a fictional antihero played by a charismatic leading actor. Liam Neeson’s dynamic retribution will always be better-looking and more entertaining than your own, so the outcome is most often an exhilarating and engaging motion picture where justice is served and our proxy avenging angel emerges victorious. Come the credits we’ve reassured ourselves with the lie that all crimes will be punished, dampened down our helpless victim complexes and had a high time abandoning certain principles – pacifism, liberal ideas about crime and social order, etc. – for a couple of hours in a dark room.

If we can overlook his over-reactive nature, his personality defects and the possibly xenophobic subtext, Bryan Mills is the kind of screen icon we can’t help but root for and hope to hold on to. “Please, Bryan!” we plead. “Come back and punch out and put down more shady hoodlums in the down-heel areas of an exotic city in the interests of payback and action satisfaction!”

Our requests are heard, because the box office and studios like the sound of ringing tills and they subsequently push their popular properties further. So it was and is with Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey and the more recent case of Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall in The Equalizer (returning at some point for The Equalizer 2). We crave more of their vengeful action and our wishes are granted with the greenlighting of successive sequels.

Sadly, there’s a sour aftertaste to this story, and it comes with a 12A certificate and sense that maybe things are getting either stale or silly (or both). Taken 2 really showed that ‘be careful what you wish for’ applies to movies and shouldn’t be casually dismissed. It also perhaps highlights to us that, perhaps, we don’t actually know what we want and that when we have an indirect say – by our choices when get out and visit the cinema – we’re liable to harm ourselves somewhere down the line.

Two years ago, fans who’d thirsted for another Taken flick found themselves sitting through a repeat of the formula that felt both less inspired and far tamer than the original article. That’s a problem if you’re on board mainly to see Liam Neeson brutalising goons. If the exhilarating sensation of the first film is absent, if things don’t feel fresh enough and if the vital violence has been toned down, then many people are in for a disappointing trip to the multiplex. 

There’s a danger of a downward trajectory, and I hope that Taken 3 doesn’t carry on in that direction. The fact that it’s been cut for a 12A (or PG-13) certificate isn’t promising, but I’ll go in optimistic and believe in Bryan Mills. I’m probably the kind of guy that the studios are banking on in order to make sure that Taken 3 is a success, and that brings us to another party with particular wishes. Filmmakers and the studios want their products to reach audiences, make money and – in an ideal world – score good reviews from regular cinemagoers and film critics alike.

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Heading back to 2008, Luc Besson and writer Robert Mark Kamen were most likely euphoric when they realised that the quick-and-easy Euro-thriller they cooked up had become a surprise global mega-hit. It’s the kind of indie success that movie producers (and actors and assorted crew members) dream of. In any case, the ‘be careful what you wish for’ aspect enters the picture when the sequel arrives to greater scrutiny and loftier expectations. There’s inevitably more pressure and fears of ‘second album syndrome’ loom large.

As shown by the Taken series – just one exemplary guilty franchise – the desire to broaden the audience can ultimately end up blowing up in the studio’s face if the core fanbase finds themselves alienated. Taken 2 grossed over $100million more at the box office than its predecessor, but the price of that massive audience is a compromised movie that was watered down in order to secure a lower certificate. Furthermore, when people hit on a successful formula they become less inclined to take risks and the result is safe filmmaking and, potentially, the stifling of creativity for fear of losing a mass mainstream audience.

At this point I start to wish that the industry had more courage and artistic ambition. In the case of Taken, I start to wish that Luc Besson would politely ask the brilliantly-named Oliver Megaton would step aside so he could have a crack at directing a franchise instalment. I imagine that the result would be something as wild and loopy as Lucy with Kim taking over from Bryan full-time as the latest ‘kick-ass Besson female hero’ with the bad guys stealing the outlandish haircuts and costumes from The Fifth Element.

I can dream, but not all wishes come true and that’s one of the messages underpinning the Taken trilogy. Bryan Mills will never get back together with his ex-wife Lennie, especially if she’s slaughtered in the first act of Taken 3. Ah well. It only serves to strengthen my theory that this film series is fundamentally all about the act of wishing and the issues around such hopeful (or hopelessly desperate activity).

If I asked you to name wish-themed films you’d probably (and rightly) reel off a list of Spielberg sci-fi fantasies and Disney animations (Pinocchio, Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin being the best examples). Still, though there are no aspirant princes and princesses or children looking to the stars and longing for an extra-terrestrial friend, Taken stands as the ultimate wish-fulfilment film franchise in the action genre. And now the third film surfaces to hopefully to deliver upon the individual desires of all involved – all the contradictory things that Bryan Mills craves, even more success for the team behind the blockbuster property and all the elements that film fans enjoyed the first time around.

I just wish they’d stop with all this 12A certificate nonsense. Then again, I know that my perceived wants might be misguided and that such wishes are hopeless in real-world terms when I’m up against the almighty industrial powers-that-be. Maybe in Taken 4 (working title, ‘Taken Way Too Far’) Bryan Mills can go after his stolen 15 rating. Or he could search for his abducted fairy godmother and then, perhaps, everyone will get exactly what they want in a perfect fairytale happy ending with no contradictions because magic has entered this universe. And Luc Besson is directing and he’s feeling crazy. Mills deserves it and we deserve it. Start wishing on stars, praying to the gods and rubbing that monkey’s paw right now.

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James Clayton is a wishful thinker and that’s apparently less use than a particular set of skills when everyone around you is getting taken. He’s now wishing that he knew Liam Neeson/Bryan Mills personally because he could do with a hand. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’s previous column here.

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