Taken S01E01 “Pilot” REVIEW
Taken, released in 2008, is one of the purest action vehicles of the 21st century. Liam Neeson’s first outing as retired CIA operative Bryan Mills is a machine-tooled piece of perfectly-calibrated brutality. The character beats – Mills’ paranoia and his estrangement from his family and job in particular – combine with a muscular script, a great location and a perfectly realised escalation of scale and violence. The iconic phone scene is far and away the best bit but Mills’ MacGyver-esque approach to every fight scene is a flat-out joy. Also, and all too often lost in the mix, Maggie Grace is excellent as the kidnapped daughter, Kim.
Neither sequel came within the same time zone of recapturing that magic. The villains were often overt racial stereotypes, the action was sanitised and the twists somehow ever more ludicrous and pedestrian. When Taken 3 was released in 2014 it infamously featured over caffeinated direction (a dozen shots just to get Bryan over a fence at one point) and the tag line “IT ENDS HERE”.
Except it didn’t.
Premiering on Amazon last week, Taken is a prequel series exploring Bryan’s recruitment by the CIA. Starring unkillable Vikings hyper bastard Clive Standen as Mills it’s an odd combination of mildly distasteful, surprisingly successful and just flat-out odd.
Let’s deal with the odd first. Standen is a great leading man and a rock solid physical presence whose work in the action sequences is positively Neesonian. But the show’s attempt to give Bryan a family and a past and map his transition into the man we know is not entirely successful. Standen, battling for his life in a chunky jumper, is a profoundly odd visual in the opening sequence and it’s not the only one. The sudden transition into a chase sequence at his sister’s funeral and a later moment where Bryan shoots someone entirely to prove a point all skew meaner than the show is aiming for. Bryan Mills is a man who is functional because of his iron will and the six people left alive who love him. Which by the time you finish reading this sentence is probably down to five. Giving him a background is fine, even necessary, but when it’s sketched in this lightly and shoved aside this fast, why bother?
The good news is what works here really works. Standen, once he puts on Mills’ iconic coat and the Neeson inflection comes out, is perfect. He’s smart, physically imposing and clearly entirely at home doing awful things to people. The standout moment by a mile is a two-pronged attack on Bryan’s home and the way he deals with it. Standen’s imposing frame, his eyes dead and his hands full of weapons, is an electric presence in an action sequence and if you came here for the punching and the creative violence, then this is definitely the show for you.
Thankfully, if you want spy-fu then this is also the show for you. The element that really soars is the one the films always sketched in: Bryan’s old unit. Here we see them led by Jennifer Beals as Cristina Hart, an effortlessly capable and intellectual handler who leads them to discover the truth about the attack on Bryan. That, in turn, leads to the episode’s two best turns as we find out just where Mills sits in the scheme of things and what they’re prepared to put him through. One of these twists gets stepped all over by some really odd editing but the end result is still pleasingly chewy for a 42 minute piece of TV. Plus it ties into Bryan’s hulking mountain of catholic guilt and looks set to throw him into an interestingly morally ambiguous world. One that, judging by the presence of talents like Beals, The Unit’s Michael Irby and Friday Night Lights’ Gaius Charles, will involve us spending a lot more time with his frighteningly competent team.
So all of that’s fun and exactly the ground this show should be on. The oddly distasteful elements? They live in the editing. That funeral/CAR CHASE! moment really is absurdly janky and there are several other moments that feel off. The flashback looks frighteningly small scale for one and Bryan’s off-hand murder of a thug who he knows won’t kill him just feels flat-out mean on the other. There’s reasoning behind all of it but these are the moments where the show’s ambition meets the show’s scale and they don’t always work well. Or at all.
But for all that, Taken’s off to an entertaining start. If it can broaden the scope of the movies without pulling the concept’s teeth then it’ll be onto something good. If it can sidestep the frankly horrifying racial stereotypes the movies were way too fond of, it’ll be onto a winner. Either way, it’s got a full season order so it’s got a while to get this right. Here’s hoping it does.
Review by Alasdair Stuart.