A number of psychologically potent fantasy and wish-fulfillment devices propel writer-producer Luc (La Femme Nikita) Besson’s latest testosterone fest, but none plays a more significant role than the suddenly mythic figure of the CIA superagent, the Bourne-style killing machine. I have a theory as to why this character type has become such a fixture in postmillennial cinema. It occurred to me the other day while watching the vastly underappreciated Charlie Wilson’s War:
There’s a great scene where Tom Hanks’ Wilson meets with the president of Pakistan in the early 1980s to discuss the region’s geopolitical crisis. At one point the leader requests a steep increase in military aid from the U.S. and suggests that the money and weapons flow through his people rather than being controlled by Americans. “Your CIA has an unimpressive track record,” he declares.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” replies the congressman.
“They missed 130,000 Soviet soldiers walking into Afghanistan,” his host points out.
“OK,” Hanks deadpans, “we blew that call.”
Once upon a time, the CIA was cool. It performed feats of military intelligence magic that astounded the world. Since the days of the Afghan invasion, however, the agency’s rep has taken one tarnishing after another. When we think of the CIA today, we are more likely to associate it with missteps involving WMD, rendition and secret torture bases. We wait as it fails year after year to track down Osama bin Laden. We wish they made secret agents like they used to.
Hence the phenomenon of motion pictures such as the Bourne series and now Taken. Its creators (including District B13 director Pierre Morel) recognize this yearning and deploy all the filmmaking gimmicks, tricks and tropes at their disposal in an effort to satisfy it, if only for a couple of hours. Maybe it’s only a Hollywood version of the globe that these spooks trot while kicking bad guy butt with unflagging fearlessness and competence — but it’s better than none.
Liam Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative who has left life as an agent to move to Los Angeles and nurture his relationship with Kim (Maggie Grace), the 17-year-old daughter he previously neglected. The process is complicated by the fact that she lives with Lenore (Famke Janssen), the ex-wife he also previously neglected. She’s remarried to a wealthy industrialist and has a chip on her shoulder the size of a Hummer. More than anything, Mills suggests a middle-aged Jason Bourne who’d prefer a case of amnesia to confronting the mess he’s made of his home life.
When the girl makes plans to fly to Paris with a friend, she needs both parents to sign off for legal reasons. Janssen’s fine with the idea and dismisses her ex’s apprehensions as predictable party pooping. “Mom says your job made you paranoid,” his daughter tells him. “My job made me aware,” he explains, before caving and driving her to the airport anyway.
Unfortunately, Father knows best in this case. The two young women have barely touched the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle when they’re targeted by — you guessed it — a cabal of Albanian sex traffickers. Luckily for little Kim, she’s on the phone with her old man at the precise moment when goons break into the apartment. And, luckily again, Dad keeps his cool and records the chaotic call on a special spy boombox he just happens to have nearby.
Luckiest of all, old Langley pals are able to analyze these few seconds of digital information and determine the nationality of the kidnappers, their crime ring, the fact that they specialize in drugging comely tourists and using them as prostitutes, and even the name of the head sleazebag (Marko). The suits also inform Neeson that, statistically, he has 96 hours to find Kim. Now that’s what I call intel. They somehow know exactly how long it takes for the average abducted California girl to vanish into the sex slave netherworld forever.
Not since the invasion of Normandy has France been on the receiving end of this much American ferocity and firepower. Mills dusts off his skill set and uses every trick in the super-spy book to track his daughter, racing against the clock and karate chopping, stabbing, running over or blowing away everyone in his path. You may wonder how much fun watching Oskar Schindler open a can of whoop-ass on foreign scum could possibly be — I know I initially did. But let me make this crystal clear: Taken is as good at times as the best of the Bournes, and in some respects it’s even more satisfying.
Jason Bourne, after all, is acting on autopilot, on instincts he doesn’t even know he has. Bryan Mills, by contrast, is a father in search of his little girl. The picture’s emotional dimension lends the action a blood-pounding power. Sure, it’s crazy and far-fetched. And sure, it’s probably beneath an actor of Neeson’s stature. But it works. Watching the hero take out the Eurotrash has never been more entertaining.