Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Roboseyo's Untimely Film Reviews: Episode 1: Taken

Roboseyo's Way After The Fact Movie Reviews

wait a minute. . . this movie's been in Korea for about two months, but is still waiting for its North American release. . . what an interesting thing, to be both after the fact and before the fact at the same time.

Movie #1: Taken

Taken is a movie where a retired secret service agent's daughter gets kidnapped in France, and he pulls out all the stops, leaving a trail of death and destruction, to rescue her from the Algerian human traffickers who meant to sell her into slavery. If you care that I gave away the ending, you aren't the kind of watcher who enjoys this kind of movie anyway, because it's not a movie for the plot-twist surprise-ending clever story-line unexpected-revelation crew (go watch The Usual Suspects again, instead, or Oceans' Eleven, or even Fight Club).

This is a movie for people who like to see shit get blew up good (sorry: is that blowed up? I always get my dick-flick diction confused), this picture is for you. Giving away the ending of this film doesn't really matter much, just as long as shit still gets blowed up. Basically, take Die Hard, take out Bruce Willis, and put in a salt-and-pepper-haired Jason Bourne with an absentee father complex instead of amnesia, and you'd have Taken.

While Liam Neeson may be a bit past his Rob Ray/Schindler's List/Best Thing About Star Wars Episode 1 heyday, he still has the gravitas to sell a film, and maybe even to make it better than it should be (cf: Star Wars). Who's to say how Taken'll do in North America? Regardless, it's been surprisingly successful in Korea, for reasons that elude me: it's no better or worse than other action movies that usually last three or four weeks in the cinemas, but this one has been around for a good two months, now.

There are three levels on which the movie works, and this is interesting.

First of all, as a movie you can watch to see shit get blowed up reeeeal good, it is a wild success. While not written or filmed with as much wit and style as Kill Bill I, the action is nearly as non-stop, the plot is linear enough not to confuse any mouth-breathers in the crowd, and the body count is bloody high (pun intended). The fighting sequences are gritty and real (especially the hand-combat stuff, which is almost as impressive as the stuff in The Bourne trilogy, which I think had the best non Kung-fu movie hand-combat ever) Liam Neeson is convincing as the penultimate aging asskicker -- not quite Bill Munny from Unforgiven, but not too far off, either. He's now on the shortlist of candidates to play Batman if they ever decide to put The Dark Night Returns (the greatest Batman story, and maybe the greatest graphic novel outright) on screen.

On the second level, it plays as a morality tale, and it's abysmal: manipulative, lurid and kind of cruel. A man's daughter sneaks away on a tour of Europe under false pretenses, and as punishment for disobeying her father, she gets kidnapped and nearly has her virginity auctioned off to a rich oil shiek, but fortunately, her patriarchal protector happens to be a papa bear as vengeful as Wyatt Erp in Tombstone. This reading of the movie is xenophobic (the darker-skinned Algerian kidnappers: illegal immigrants in a foreign country, to stack evil upon evil for all the adventureless homebodies who never felt wanderlust, or who want the wanderlust to be scared out of their sons and especially daughters). The movie is sexist: the females in the movie are all passive: the ex-wife is now a trophy-wife, and a manipulating bitch, and all the other females are kidnapping victims strung out on drugs and chained to beds to be sold as whores, for the sin of travelling alone. It belittles women, especially the daughter, who is sixteen, played by about a twenty-four year-old, acts fourteen, and dresses as if she were seven, in polka-dot one-pieces. The big bad world is full of big bad dark-skinned baddies who want to kidnap and rape you if you dare wish to see the world. . . better to stay home in your drawing room and cultivate more feminine arts like drawing, needlepoint, conversation, and swooning.

In fact, the reason I saw it at all is because Girlfriendoseyo's friend recommended it to her. . . after the movie it occurred to Girlfriendoseyo that this very friend is the same one who disapproves of her wish to travel and her love of walking around her neighbourhood alone at night, for fear of rapists and organ harvesting kidnappers (I kid you not). She'd sent her friend to see Taken to have the wanderlust frightened out of her. This read of the movie is cruel, brutal, ugly, xenophobic, and would have us all glance at darker-skinned people with suspicion, suspect government officials of corruption, and never vacation farther than the nearest beach, because we all know that rapists and creeps live in some other town and not here.

I'm not sure which of these reads is the one that appeals to Korean viewers so much: the movie's still playing here in Korea, after two full months -- a surprisingly long run.

The third read of the movie didn't come out until about halfway through, and it was interesting. See, there's this torture scene halfway through, where papa bear needs to get some information (I think it's a name), in order to move to the next notch on the "rising action" plotline arc. Pardon the graphic description, but at least you didn't have to see it: he does it by tying his prisoner to a chair, jamming iron spikes into his thighs, attaching jumper cables to the spikes, and connecting the cables with the light switch in the room. He comments casually how the power grid in France is excellent, so the supply of electricity will never falter and ruin the rhythm of the interrogation. . . isn't that nice! Much better than messing about with extreme rendition, outsourcing torture to Syria or something, where the infrastructure isn't as reliable. The torture scene ends with papa bear getting the information he needs, turning the power supply on, and leaving his prisoner anyway, to die of electrocution/pain/thirst - whichever comes first; he doesn't really care. Now here's what that scene accomplished:

1. it reminded me of the recent controversy over the US torturing, and also "extraordinary/irregular rendition" of prisoners.

2. it was disgusting. It really was. It was shocking and brutal and the way the tortur-ee acted stirred up real pathos: yeah, he did bad things, but. . . to be treated like this?

3. That fact -- the fact I was disturbed by this torture scene, pointed out to me the fact that, up until that point, I had basically written Papa Bear a moral blank check to act however he wanted, because he was a retired special agent looking for his daughter. All it took for the filmmakers, was to play the family card -- the papa bear ploy, if you will, and suddenly (as in Kill Bill, with the elemental "revenge" narrative) we moviegoers happily suspend all moral judgment, and justify any behaviour, because he's doing it for his family. . . given the ability and the circumstances, wouldn't you do the same? Later in the movie, he goes into someone's house, threatens his family, shoots his wife in the shoulder, and threatens to finish her off, if he doesn't tell him where to find the traffickers. Violating someone else's family, to defend his own family? So what if the other guy's a creep -- Papa Bear's lost any moral high ground, any hero cachet he once had. Now he's just the merciless avenger -- the Man With No Name from Clint Eastwood's old trilogy, ready to kill for money, for pride, or just because I'm Clint Eastwood, who the hell are you?

(badass quote of the day: from Unforgiven: "That's right. I've killed women and children. I've killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.")

and finally, once I'd had that realization, back to point two. . .

4. It wasn't OK to give him a free pass. So what if he's doing it for his family. Does that final scene where he rescues his daughter from the dark-skinned baddies and their lupine-faced, morbidly obese boss, justify the fifty or seventy people he killed? No, it doesn't. Curb-stomping fifty other people, often brutally, to save the virginal daughter isn't inherently OK, even if his daughter is really great and pretty and innocent. Papa Bear's methods sapped whatever moral authority he had at first, and his short time-frame (ninety-six hours from kidnapping to losing his chance to recover his daughter) didn't justify it; what he did was still shocking and cruel.

By the way: (Another great exploration of moral authority is Spielberg's movie "Munich," which gave an honest and complex enough look at the terror/counterterror, "you kill my guy, I kill yours" war of retribution Israel fights against its enemies, that Spielberg was criticized for being both too pro-Israel AND too pro-Palestine [and then criticized again by those who thought the movie suffered because he didn't take a side]...a paradox interesting enough to make me want to see the movie.)
So, in the end, the reunion between father and daughter was unsatisfying to me, because the means had gone so far beyond the pale, that the end was hollow. Now, maybe I was looking too far into this one, and maybe I'm giving Luc Besson too much credit, but regardless, that's what I got out of the movie.

And so, masked in this shoot-em up kicker, and a cloying morality tale, by the mere fact it goes beyond what we're willing to forgive under the Papa-Bear clause, back again into the realm of the disgusting and shocking, and highlighted by the brief discussion of American torture methods, is an interesting critique of the U.S. "better your children than ours"/"security by any, and we mean any means necessary" foreign and domestic security policies, wherein it's OK for Iraq to live in a police state, and for Iraqi kids to be afraid to walk to school, so long as American kids can feel safe when THEY walk to school, because the rest of the world (or at least those looking to stir up trouble in the rest of the world) looks at the mess in Iraq and goes "Holy hell! That's how far they'll go if we piss them off. Let's try to bully England instead: those crazy Yankees are NOT to be F*CKED with!"

A pertinent quote:
"Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

- Michael Ledeen, holder of the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute

Interesting movie, though. Much more thought provoking than I thought it would be. And yeah, I've been told I think too much before. Why do you ask?

P.S.: Liam Neeson's most badass scene, from Rob Ray: arguably the best film sword fight ever, certainly the best since The Princess Bride. (and mercy me, I remember absolutely despising the bad guy in this movie) -- is the correct term "badassitude" or "badassery"? Anyway, in case you ever doubted Liam Neeson's badass. . . ness, here you go.

and from The Princess Bride (did you know in the screenplay, it actually says, "And what we are starting now is one of the two greatest sword fights in modern movies (the other one happens later on)..."
. . . more discussion of the "greatest cinematic sword fights" topic here.

Other Nominees:
Kill Bill 1
Star Wars, Episodes 1, 3, 5, and 6
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring


Otto Silver said...

You are truly a weird, entertaining man, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. I am adding a star to this post so that I can print it and read it while lounging somewhere comfortable

Roboseyo said...

Thanks, Otto. Actually, I take that as the highest kind of praise:

one of the coolest compliments I ever received, one which I treasure right up there with the time my high-school math teacher told me he hopes his daughter marries someone like me, was the time one of my old coworkers told me,

"Rob, I have to smoke pot to see the world the way you see it all the time."

Anonymous said...

Greatest sword fights of all-time? Are all of these commenters under 30? The greatest sword fights took place in the "Adventures of Robin Hood" and "Captain Blood" back in 1935 and 1938 between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone aka Sherlock Holmes. Too bad those recent insipid Disney pirate movies weren't more like these classics. These greats, and others like them from before 1970, are readily available in numerous formats for those needing a little education on the subject.

Also, I think you are wrong here: "better your children than ours"/"security by any, and we mean any means necessary." They haven't been nuked out of existence, had everything bombed into rubble, or been experimented on with chemical or biological weapons like Saddam did to those not of his specific religious orientation or party (the Kurds for one).

The U.S. thought that the people of Iraq would rise about their petty squabbles and religious differences and come together to create a better place for their children to live in after the removal of Saddam, but the black gold under the land is too corrupting to too many which include even those in neighboring countries who are pulling strings of their own for as many barrels of crude as they can get their bloody fingers on as well. Worse, even religions aren't immune to the disease of wealth.

Right now, creating turmoil in this land by justifying it in the name of one's god, or gods, is good tactics because eventually the U.S. will leave, and oil will be worth an absolute fortune for whoever controls the pipelines. It may end up being Iran, or Syria, or Russia, or even China. Just look at this nonsense playing out in South Korea over extreme nationalism. Who really has the most to gain from it all? I can tell you who has the most to lose. It's good old Uncle Sam. However, I do believe that those in the northern part of Iraq are most grateful for the U.S. invasion and presence there.

John from Daejeon

Roboseyo said...

John: re: errol flynn: yeah, I wish I had a chance to see some of that stuff. I heard the sword fight scene in one of the old Hamlets is pretty epic. . . but I couldn't find it on Youtube to put it up here.

meanwhile, re: subtexts in the movie Taken. . . I'll let Luc Besson know how you feel next time I see him; however, I do kind of agree with him that the good that some point to which has/may have been accomplished is kind of undermined by the other crap that goes on, as well as the crap upon which pretenses the war was started in the first place. --I think the point still stands that Papa Bear's methods have sapped any moral authority we might have offered him because he was going after his daughter, by the sheer extremes he goes to, to get her back. In the end, he got what he wanted, yeah, but he's not a hero -- he's just another part of the story, just another character looking out for the things HE wants, above the things others want. I think we could argue the same with the US in Iraq: sure, US is a country playing for its own interests on the world stage. . . but like Papa Bear, because of all that's gone on there, I don't think there's anything heroic about it anymore. US got its oil, Papa Bear got his daughter. . . so what?

Beyond that, I'm not gonna go toe to toe with you on what I think about the Iraq war (especially not on a post about a movie), but thanks for weighing in.


Anonymous said...

My last post on this post. You can catch Errol's flicks on Turner Classic Movies quite often or buy them off Amazon.com pretty cheaply as they are rather old. Sort of difficult to do over here but not impossible. I can even burn you a copy if you are interested, but they aren't pristine copies. They were originally on that outmoded data storage medium known as video tape, but I copied them to a dvd. I also have an extra copy of Shawn Matthews' "Island of Fantasy" memoir. A truly great read which I can send you if you are still interested.

And, you are right about the film: "just another character looking out for the things HE wants, above the things others want." That's the way the power players in the world work. Give the masses bread and circuses to keep them occupied and from asking questions. Tragically, most people don't know of the atrocities happening in North Korea and Darfur today or that happened in WW II when the Japanese did their own experimenting on prisoners of war and Chinese citizens with chemical and biological weapons because of people in power looking out for what "they" want above all else.

We can put our heads in the sand and wish that everything in the world was peachy keen, but there are those out there willing to do anything and everything to pursue their own agendas. I know I wouldn't push Russia or China very far. It's alarming just how many of Russia's journalists have died under mysterious circumstances in recent years.

BTW, for those who may not know, the U.S. did not get Iraq's oil. It goes to Iraq's government. I know that the U.S. would like a share of it, but it will be a long time coming as no one know's how all this will end up playing out, when new infrastructure will be built, and if the pipeline bombings will ever stop (Nigeria is having their own troubles in that department). Also the Kurds don't want to share their future oil wealth with those in the mid and southern sections of the country. "60 Minutes" had a great piece on the good that actually came from the war in the north; however, sectarian violence to the south gets most of the press. Even the unbiased press is usually actually biased in some way or another.

I'm close to leaving South Korea as my second contract is up at the end of this summer, but I hope to keep following your great blog. I'm glad that there are some people, like yourself, out there willing to show the whole broad picture and not just the narrow obscure shadows that could lead to mass hysteria.

John from Daejeon

Roboseyo said...

Thanks for your postings on this page, John from Daejeon: I've appreciated them.

I posted my response to you yesterday, and then wanted to amend it, but my computer's on the blink, so I have to do things from the office computer:

the thing I wanted to say is simply that, when I said "there's nothing heroic" about the Iraq war, I should have qualified that I mean that in terms of the decision makers' choice to go in there 1. upon false pretenses, and 2. without a detailed plan for what to do after Saddam was dislodged from power: it was not meant to diminish the valour of the soldiers out there doing their best following orders; simply to question those who put them there with a "cross our fingers" post-war strategy.

Next: you're right, too, that countries that don't aggressively pursue their own interests DO end up getting scooped by the countries that ARE more aggressive -- who's to say it wouldn't have been China or Iran gunning for oil-rich, politically unstable countries, if the U.S. wasn't in there -- I had an interesting talk in my conversation class about how the U.S. just built the world's fastest supercomputer for $100 million, while many Americans don't have access to basic health care. . . but then again, if U.S. doesn't building the world's fastest computer, China will, or Russia. That's true. And thanks for the info about Iraq's oil.

You're also right that people should be much more upset than they are about North Korea or Darfur -- the problem is, unlike the Dalai Lama for Tibet, they don't have charismatic and unbelievably wonderful spokespersons who shake hands with hollywood stars and bring public attention to their causes.

I'm glad you enjoy my blog, and I also really appreciate your taking the time to weigh in on some of my posts.

Meanwhile. . . which two Errol Flynn/other old swashbuckling adventure movies should I order first, in order to be convinced?

Juicy said...

Much of your take on the movie "Taken" would have been my own take perhaps couple of years ago. Since then, my wife and I had a baby girl. And since then... You bet your ass I have Neeson's character a free pass. Hell, I gave him a season pass in the luxury box equipped with both AC and DC power grids and all the rusty iron spikes and best gauge jumper cables.

I can recognize his acts as being evil, and God forbid, if something similar happens to my little girl, I wouldn't be able to do what he did. Not because I didn't want to, but because I know I couldn't pull it off. I lack, to paraphrase the dialogue, Neeson's character's particular set of skills that would make me a nightmere to guys like the kidnappers. But if I had those skills, yeah. I would track them all down and do everything Neeson's character did and more.

Roboseyo said...

Thanks for weighing in, Juicy. I wonder if my view will change when/if I become a father.

Until then, I do understand your position, though I wonder how you plan to do "more" than torture and kill them.