The Most Overrated Thriller of the Century Helped Save Action Movies

In 2008, Liam Neeson made a powerful warning about trusting the French.

Originally Published: 
20th Century Fox
Inverse Recommends

As Jason Statham’s new movie about an apiculture-themed secret society suggests, we’ve hit peak unassuming middle-aged man roused from the quiet life by a personal tragedy that prompts them to dig up the tools of their past and butcher an army of goons. There’s John Wick, of course, and Bob Odenkirk’s Nobody. But we’ve also had Denzel Washington’s The Equalizer, Pierce Brosnan’s The November Man, Michael Caine’s Harry Brown, and Nicolas Cage’s Mandy, to name just a few movies about men taking the law into their own hands in between taking their Metamucil and afternoon naps.

John Wick is the genre’s gold standard, but our modern manaissance began with Taken, a 2008 movie as surprisingly influential as it is surprisingly terrible, given its fame. In Taken, Liam Neeson is Bryan “Taken” Mills, an ex-CIA divorcee trying to improve his relationship with his 17-year-old daughter, Kim, over the objections of Kim’s harridan mother.

Mom pressures Bryan into letting Kim and her friend Amanda visit Paris, and Bryan reluctantly agrees, despite concerns something bad — like, God forbid, a Takening — will happen. The sensible Bryan insists on security measures that are promptly ignored, and it’s revealed the young women lied about their itinerary. After Amanda all but gives her Social Security number to the first attractive Frenchman to say bonjour, the duo are, brace yourself, Taken. Soon, it’s up to Mills to get his daughter back by slaughtering a variety of sullen ethnic stereotypes.

Taken is maudlin and cynical, a reactionary action movie for divorced dads who get scared by Facebook posts into avoiding the crime-riddled urban hellscapes of Boise and Omaha. The French police are useless or corrupt. Sex traffickers operate with brazen impunity. By the time Neeson uncovers a hidden basement where a secretive group of European elites auction off beautiful American virgins to Middle Eastern sheiks, it begins to feel like a Qanon thriller.

Action is an inherently conservative genre about how righteous violence can solve all our problems, which is fine as long as the gunfights and beatdowns kick enough ass. Taken’s are… okay. There’s an admirable attempt to keep things grounded in relative realism, and one early chase ends in an amusingly dark twist. But Mr. Taken is too invincible to be interesting, and the movie is more interested in wallowing in misery than having him chop dudes in the throat.

Liam Neeson’s “I will find you, and I will kill you” speech earned the ultimate honor: a KnowYourMeme page.

20th Century Fox

Not to get too technical about a movie where Liam Neeson jams rusty nails into a man’s legs and electroshocks him to death, but trafficking victims tend to be poor or foreign — if Charles de Gaulle Airport was losing more well-to-do Westerners than suitcases, we’d probably hear about it. Maybe that’s nitpicky, but if you want to be gritty and grounded, you need a baseline of credibility. Instead, Taken wants us to buy that a 17-year-old girl would dedicate the summer of 2008 to following U2 around.

When action does break out, it feels like Mills faces most of his resistance from the editing bay. There are annoying shakes and jarring cuts galore, and even when you can tell what’s going on, the only goon to make an impression is French actor Jalil Naciri, by offering more resistance than a damp sponge. In Taken’s defense, it was made on a modest $25 million budget. But to immediately strip away that defense, that’s about what the first John Wick movie had to work with, and revisiting its elaborate, detailed fight choreography will make you wonder how starved audiences of 2008 were for action.

Despite these flaws, Taken’s elevation to meme Valhalla makes it difficult to remember it was seen pre-release as the nadir of Liam Neeson’s career, as the man who once played Oskar Schindler had wrung a quick paycheck and a trip to Paris out of some garbage thought destined for straight-to-DVD bins across America. But as lousy as Taken is, it’s still a reminder of Neeson’s tremendous talent. He brings far more emotion to his sad-mad dad than needed to a movie where he impersonates a French cop by speaking in his natural Irish accent. Just the first 20 minutes feel like the start of a better drama where Neeson repairs his relationship with his daughter.

Among other oddities, Taken is set in a reality where English lacks the word “kidnapped.”

20th Century Fox

Those particular skills, along with Taken’s surprise box office success, transformed Neeson into an action star capable of commanding $20 million for Taken 3, a movie that failed to convince viewers that he remains capable of climbing a chain-link fence. Ironically, some of the action movies Neeson made after Taken are far better, despite having no cultural impact. The Grey is a thoughtful, brutal thriller, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a pulpy neo-noir, and even shlock like The Commuter and Run All Night offer more genre charm than watching Neeson depopulate the Albanian ex-pat community.

Neeson, now 71, is getting harder and harder to buy as the lead of films like The Ice Road 2: Road to the Sky, but the genre he unleashed isn’t going anywhere. John Wick superseded Taken as its standard-bearer for many reasons, but chief among them is that it was smart enough to build out a fantastical alternate reality rather than trying to impose a parade of bloodshed onto the cramped confines of human trafficking. The Wick movies are better made, sure, but it’s also more fun to watch Reeves avenge a puppy and negotiate secret assassin drama than it is to watch Neeson frown at the emaciated bodies of forcibly drug-addicted sex slaves.

In that, Taken can be credited with bridging yesteryear’s bleak vigilante fantasies — your Death Wishes and Dirty Harrys — and the gun-fu absurdities that continue to crash into our theaters. Old guys will forever be taking gory revenge, but at least now they’re having a little fun with it. In 2021, The Hollywood Reporter praised Nobody for “Taking itself much less seriously than the Taken series,” but that Taken remained a touchstone proves we owe it begrudging thanks. If audiences hadn’t bought a 55-year-old Liam Neeson massacring a hodgepodge of Eastern Europeans, would they have bought it from Keanu Reeves and Bob Odenkirk?

This article was originally published on

Related Tags