Many a-time have I ranted about the inherent problems of the thriller genre.
The thriller is the mutant love child born of the affair between the Action film and the Drama. These are generally two genres which don't get along very well. Dramas excite us by developing characters with whom we sympathize. Most action films tend to avoid this difficult task by just taking stock characters and a silly plot to use as a clothesline on which to hang such set-pieces as martial arts fights, gun battles, and car chases.
Typically thrillers are children which don't know which parent to please. They try to be both a drama and an action film in one movie and end up failing in both categories. They're just action-lite and drama-lite. Usually I'd rather just get both genres done properly by watching a pure example.
When it comes to mutations, though, sometimes nature manages to get it right. A thriller would actually work if it managed to take the character development of a drama and then use it to intensify the excitement of the action. After all, an action sequence is infinitely more powerful when you care about the person participating in it.
And that's why "Taken" works so well. It's the first thriller I've seen in a long time that actually manages a dramatic charge potent enough to effectively enhance its action sequences.
Perhaps the drama works because its story is so simple and primal. Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a man who's sacrificed years of his life to protect his country at the expense of his marriage and his relationship with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace.) He's finally reached a point where he can retire from his covert CIA work and move to Los Angeles so he can live near Kim and begin to repair the damage done by his absence.
The film establishes Mills' deep love for his daughter with careful details. As the film begins we see the care he's taken to pick out the perfect birthday present for an aspiring singer, a karaoke machine. He even wraps the gift with precision and care. When some CIA buddies come to visit him he's initially uninterested in their offer to join them on a lucrative private security job. When he learns that the client is a Britney Spears-style singer he jumps at the chance solely for the opportunity it would yield to ask her for advice for his daughter.
When Kim wants to fly to Paris for a summer vacation Mills is initially cautious. He knows the world's evil very well and at least when he's living close to her he can protect her from it. Finally he relents, granting permission for her to travel abroad.
And what happens? His worst nightmare. Kim and her friend are kidnapped by sex slave traffickers.
So now Bryan Mills family man becomes one with Bryan Mills CIA operative. He flies to Paris and begins his investigation into his daughter's kidnapping, employing all his skills to track down her captors, rescue her, and deliver retribution to the scum behind it all.
There are three people responsible for the film's brilliant success as the year's thriller to beat. The first two are those behind the camera. The director is Pierre Morel, who, with "Taken," has demonstrated that he's no one hit wonder. His first film, "District B13," still stands as one of the decade's most exhilarating, almost perfect action films. (See my review here.)
Morel is a protg of French filmmaker Luc Besson, who here takes credits as writer and producer. If there's anything that runs across Besson's films it's a certain degree of simplicity in his vision. There generally isn't a whole lot of nuance or ambiguity in his characters, stories and films. "Taken" is no different. It features a very basic story: father rescues daughter from slave traders. Yet this story universal enough (who can't relate to wanting to protect a vulnerable daughter/sister/wife?) that one can easily and quickly establish an emotional connection to the characters.
The third and perhaps most critical factor is Neeson as the lead. Who better to rescue someone than the man who played Oskar Schindler? Neeson gives the material a level of seriousness and the necessary dramatic kick.
And it's perhaps in this trio that we see the answer for avoiding the trap of the thriller. How does one avoid drama-lite/action-lite in lieu of the drama-charged action film? Take a dramatic actor of Neeson's character and combine him with action filmmakers like Morel and Besson. Hopefully Hollywood is watching. "Taken" is how the thriller is done.