Very Particular Skills

‘Taken 2’s’ Crazy Sexual Politics!

Evil sex traffickers keep threatening the daughter of Liam Neeson’s ass-kicking character, and he keeps killing them—this is the premise of the awesome Taken franchise. By Tracy Quan

Banish your preconceptions about Taken 2, the weekend’s top-grossing sequel to the 2009 hit Taken, starring Liam Neeson as ex-CIA dude Bryan Mills. Surely you remember Bryan, who saved his daughter’s virginity by killing an assortment of swarthy sex traffickers.

Taken 2 opens at the traffickers’ funeral, in a rural Albanian setting where the only women we can see are silent babushka figures who, we surmise, are too cloistered to know about the family business. So yes, this cartoonish thriller, about a virtuous American man pursued by a furious Albanian clan with a terrifying plan, is guilty of ethnic stereotyping. But it’s a lot more interesting than many reviewers led us to believe, and there are times when the Taken franchise (from the Luc Besson action factory) seems like a French author’s mischievous commentary on how Americans see the world.

Neeson’s character sums up the premise of Taken 2 quite nicely when he tells his fetching 19-year-old daughter, played by Maggie Grace: “It’s not you they want, Kim. It’s me.” In other words, it’s not about your sexuality, Kim, it’s about my … particular skills. Anyone who has ever been a 19-year-old girl seeking independence and sexual experience might be forgiven for thinking Taken 2 is a metaphoric fantasia about Dad’s deepest journey into denial.

Taken 2 is a family-friendly PG-13 action caper that wants to be about violence. “Good luck,” as one of the sex traffickers told Bryan in the previous film. Despite all the killing and the vehicular mayhem, sexual issues are at the heart of this sequel. Bryan’s anxiety about his daughter’s sexual autonomy is established almost immediately.

Bryan, who aspires grudgingly to a more liberal style of fatherhood, has a very specific set of hang-ups getting in the way of that. He doesn’t even trust Jamie, Kim’s dweebish, deferential boyfriend, played by Luke Grimes. After the harrowing events in Taken, all guys are potential suspects when it comes to his daughter. In real life, we would say that Jamie should be suspicious of Bryan, since his girlfriend’s dad has followed her to his home by secretly installing a device in her phone. While Kim’s quest for privacy is the norm, she quickly forgives her father’s snooping.

If Bryan and Kim were, let’s just say, Albanians, this behavior would look sociopathic and tribal. Since they’re white folks living in Los Angeles, they seem merely codependent.

There are numerous ways to read Taken 2. There’s a clash of families, a showdown between one sprawling yet cohesive male-dominated tribe, mired in Eastern tradition, and three modern Americans who look like a family to a lot of us, even though Kim’s mom Leonore is divorced from Bryan. On paper, there’s something almost hip about Bryan and Lenore (played by Famke Janssen), but sex traffickers, like terrorists, can turn enlightened people into reactionaries.

Politically speaking, the U.S. release is well-timed. Last week, the Twittersphere was buzzing with sharp criticism of Nicholas Kristof’s PBS mini-series Half the Sky which, many say, portrays sex trafficking as a simple problem requiring simple solutions. Obama’s recent speech about human trafficking and forced prostitution was also questioned for ignoring the real-world harm done by self-appointed saviors whose misguided and dangerous brothel raids appear to be inspired by cinematic heroics.

In the U.S., sex trafficking is a pet “women’s issue” for the religious right. You can enjoy the Taken franchise as trashy escapism or you can see it as sexually conservative propaganda. Perhaps it’s a little of both—or an extended riff on why we’re fascinated with sex traffickers.

The Taken films have something in common with George Loane Tucker’s 1913 classic, “Traffic in Souls,” a cutting edge (for its time) silent thriller. There’s a compelling storyline involving clear innocents and evil-doers. To varying degrees, hypocrisy in high places plays a role. The latest gadgets are also a theme. In Traffic, the so-called white slavers use a telegraphic pen to communicate. One important difference in 2012: the technological advantage belongs not to the Albanians, but to Neeson’s Bryan. Our view of traffickers has changed, and they seem brutal rather than cunning.

Despite some absurdities (“Take a shoelace from one of my shoes in the closet …” ), Taken 2’s dialogue is clever where it needs to be and appropriately spare. Non-verbal types can enjoy the car chase scenes, but if you have an ear for dialogue, you might be watching a different movie than what the action fetishist sees.

Murad, the alpha sex trafficker whose son was tortured to death (in Taken) with electric currents, has decided to pay Bryan back for this. Portrayed with gusto by Rade Šerbedžija, this elder thug has plans for Kim, if he can recapture her. Is she as valuable as she was in Taken? Or is she now just a means for Murad to inflict his revenge on Dad?

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There is some weird emotional jockeying when Murad remembers the murder of his beloved son who of course was a sex trafficker: “The one you killed. Am I supposed just to forget it?”

Bryan—in his most Liam Neeson-y moment—counters with “the parents of all those kidnapped girls” whose lives were ruined, and the political message seems to be that we’re always in a contest to determine who is actually human or more victimized.

In Taken, as fans will recall, Kim was being auctioned off to the highest bidder, a significant plot device which saved her life, but in Taken 2, it’s very different. Murad intends to sell Kim “to the lowest brother,” and he threatens to destroy her market value entirely by ensuring that she’ll be “abused by so many men she will be nothing more than a piece of meat that a dog would not have.”

Although it’s a brief conversation, it’s the most revealing moment in the film. As a tempting virgin she was able to live long enough to be saved, but this was the quirk of a market controlled by foreigners. The power of foreign traffickers to determine a daughter’s commodity value in a market far away from home is the ultimate nightmare, reason enough to plant a GPS device in her phone or go on a killing rampage. The action scenes, to me, just seem like macho window dressing around this central source of paranoia.

So what’s the solution?

At the finale, Bryan is still coming to terms with the fact that his daughter has a boyfriend. Kim reassures him, apparently joking: “Don’t shoot this one, I really like him.” Bryan could kill his daughter’s suitor if he chose to, and there is a reason for that. For this American dad the moral, ultimately, is that his daughter is actually his personal real estate, and the solution is to zealously guard his property against those who threaten its value. In other words, the traffickers have won.