Pierre Morel’s 2008 action thriller was not meant to possess the status it has now. It houses its name amongst the top cinematic thrills of its decade, and for some, stands respectively alongside the Mission Impossible and Die Hard franchises for its high-speed chases across Paris and heart-racing combat choreography encouraged by producer Luc Besson. But the success is mostly down to its fearless protagonist, Bryan Mills, and the unlikely actor who embodied the patriarch ferocity needed to save Bryan’s kidnapped daughter from the hands of a filthy trafficking mob.
Jeff Bridges was invited to play the l’agent de la CIA before Liam Neeson ended the hunt and claimed one of the most quotable lines in film history. Neeson – pre-Taken – belonged to no specific genre, dabbling in romance, fantasy and lightsaber shenanigans. ‘Action star’ was certainly not his m.o., but he awoke “the man that would tear down the Eiffel Tower” and owned a fascinating character that Tom ‘Running Man’ Cruise would not be able to catch. The gritty exertion needed for the role must have been demanding for Neeson who had stepped outside his comfort zone. In the end, the risk unexpectedly paid off, becoming his career-advancing catalyst by birthing a character to invest in and unravel with great enthusiasm.
‘Bry’ is a loving father and respectful ex-husband. A simple dresser who is partial to a Chinese take-away and takes his coffee black with one sugar. He feeds his daughter’s true passion for singing, welcomes an unexpected BBQ with the boys and never raises his voice when his morals are being challenged by his disgruntled ex-wife. Agent Mills is 6”4, 230 lb, a skilled combatant, interrogator and driver who dons the essential leather coat and favours a Beretta. In pursuit, he is ruthless, vigilant, prepared. His emotions are held beneath the mission objective as he hunts free of anxiety. A focused predator. Mr Smith.
The duality within Mills is omnipresent; a ying and yang, if you will. The primitive and almost soulless militant within him never crosses into fatherhood, yet the learned behaviour from his training and experiences only filter through when fuelled by the best of intentions. His precise present-wrapping, a showroom for an apartment, the ritualistic birthday photo he takes of his daughter, Kim, each year to add to his scrapbook. To his ex-wife, Lenore, these would seem obsessive practices, convinced that his job made him paranoid. To the viewer, we can see both sides, but it’s these small details that make the man, blurring the lines between a good-natured human being and a “Preventer”, where his raw goal is to “prevent bad things from happening.”
There is a constant pull between father and agent, a tug of war, a visceral dilemma that we witness in almost every scene. During the film’s ‘moment’ – when Kim is on the phone to Mills and alerts him of the intruders closing in around her – we see that mental and emotional shift happen. He abandons the worry and panic of a parent and directs his daughter with regimented calmness, that he knows will best serve her chance of survival. His emotions waver, when he assures her she will be taken; a glimpse into his in-between state. The scene where Mills finds his daughter’s friend, Amanda – after a frantic search of the “house with the red door” in Rue de Paradis – shows a flickering transition between personalities that’s deeply cathartic. We watch Mr Smith bursting through doors, closing in on his prey. But on finding Amanda, you can see the professional drain out of him, like a mist clearing, as he lets his paternal emotions escape as the brutal realisation of his daughter’s endangerment hits home. He is the perfect balance.
Every bullet wound, torture sequence and duplicitous step the ex-black op inflicts during Taken – the first of its trilogy – was instinctual but premeditated, being faithful to his training. His drive was fueled by the love for his daughter and the devout belief in his capabilities to save her. Mills does what he has to and commits the crimes that are needed, but that doesn’t mean he wants to or takes any gratification in the process. When defending pop star, Sheerah, (against the attempted attack on her life at the films beginning) his reflexes are far from rusty, identifying her safety as a priority regardless of her rude dismissal towards him earlier. He doesn’t hold grudges, nor waves the ‘I told you so’ flag.
Neeson makes a great portrayal of this ruthless but humble character, divided between acceptance from his family and the crippling knowledge of the real world. Despite Mills’ attraction to potentially life-threatening endeavours he knows he will excel at, he admitted the sacrifice he made for his family. When asked if he missed the job by his daughter, he replied “I missed you more”, thus identifying what matters most to him. This performance made Ireland’s treasure a household name in action cinema, later starring in similar leads for Unknown and Non-Stop. While these roles mimic Mills’ style, none quite match the Jekyll and Hyde complex that Neeson and Morel handle so gently.
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