'Taken': TV Review
Clive Standen is forced to live up to Liam Neeson's standard in an NBC series prequel that takes little from the films while also adding little that's new.
The pointlessness of TV shows mining brand names reaches something of a nadir with NBC's Taken, which manages simultaneously to deliver nothing relating to the hit Liam Neeson movie franchise, while also becoming a completely different show after its premiere episode. It's a rare double bait-and-switch that certainly doesn't benefit the average and forgettable show that Taken subsequently becomes
To get this out of the way up front: Taken is not a very good movie. It's a brutally efficient delivery mechanism for Neeson to growl and kill an astounding number of foreign nationals in only 90 minutes. The sequels became increasingly less efficient, more sadistic and more xenophobic. The appeal of the franchise can be boiled down to Neeson's rugged exceptionalism, a few European postcard locations and the satisfying crack that comes from breaking the bones of a man who keeps kidnapping members of your family.
I hold Taken on no pedestal and yet whatever virtues the title denotes, the NBC series delivers none of them.
Adapted by Alexander Cary, Taken is a conceptually odd beast, a prequel set an indeterminate number of years before the events of the movie, but also in the present day. Bryan Mills (Clive Standen) is a former Green Beret whose attempts at an ordinary life, which we see none of, are upended by a personal tragedy that leads him on a mission for vengeance.
It's a premise that could have been established within 10 minutes, but then how would we have been reminded of what a trigger it is for Bryan when bad things are done to female members of his family? And how would they have fit in a scene in which Bryan mansplains the proper handling of a tense and dangerous circumstance? It's something he does, I guess, but it plays as much more condescending in the TV context and without Neeson's authority.
Later, in case you've forgotten what you're watching, a suspicious character justifies an act of betrayal by telling Bryan, "My advice — don't ever have kids, especially not a daughter." See? Eventually someday Bryan will have a daughter and she'll be annoyingly kidnappable. Daughters, man.
For the majority of the pilot, Bryan indiscriminately dispatches hitmen and government agents alike. This is where Taken is most similar to the movie, turning wanton death into repetitive drudgery.
Then Bryan meets "a deputy director with special portfolio at the office of the director of national intelligence" who recruits him to work with a team on cases that involve more indiscriminate slaughter, but possess no visible oversight or jurisdiction.
Somebody figured Bryan's monomaniacal drive for revenge wouldn't be enough for a sustaining series, even though "monomaniacal" is to the Bryan Mills brand as "meats" is to Arby's. Making him a single cog within a unit that goes around defusing tense situations — two episodes involve abductions, as if Taken figures that anybody getting taken by anybody at least makes it relevant — in abandoned warehouses, abandoned factories and other abandoned, generic sets is an odd choice.
It's not like the TV version of Bryan comes equipped with some preexisting particular skills but he's being taught others. No, he's already a man capable of taking out a full elite squad of thugs, with or without weaponry, so all he's learning is patience and teamwork, things that we know will have absolutely nothing to do with the man he becomes.
What Taken actually proves to be as a series is just another NBC action drama in which a government team faces a different limited threat each week, while the enigmatic and tortured hero at the center of the show spends two minutes per episode getting to the root of his own individual psychosis, breaking bits and pieces of protocol along the way. It's The Blacklist without James Spader chewing scenery, or Blindspot without the tattoos, or Chicago Federal Government without the Chicago (or any recognizable urban texture other than poorly disguised Toronto).
A movie about a lone wolf has been reconfigured as an anonymous ensemble procedural in which, after four episodes, I couldn't tell you the names or specializations or a single character detail pertaining to any of Bryan's colleagues, other than that one is played by Smash from Friday Night Lights (Gaius Charles) and another has a mustache. Jennifer Beals plays the aforementioned "deputy director with special portfolio at the office of the director of national intelligence" and deserves some sort of honorary Emmy for delivering that expositional introduction with a straight face.
Standen, born in Northern Ireland but oddly covering up his American accent in a different way from Northern Ireland-born Neeson, comes to Taken off of an utterly entertaining turn as Rollo on History Channel's generally underrated Vikings. He balanced rugged swagger and abiding jealousy on that show, even bringing hints of humor to an unstoppable warrior. Only the latter trait is in evidence on Taken.
Early episodes include several scenes of close fighting, delivering an impressive body count by network standards, but not a PG-13 level of limb torsion and bloodless slaughter, causing boredom to set in. Standen is entirely convincing, so much so that whenever Beals' character sends another agent in to do anything, the immediate response is, "Why not just let Bryan do it to save time?" He's less convincing in Bryan's quieter moments, including a slow-gestating romance, and any time he's asked to wear a silly sweater. Making Bryan into a three-dimensional character who feels emotions more than umbrage about his daughter's kidnapping was a good idea, but only in spirit and not execution.
"Bryan Mills" isn't a character name people are going to tune in for. He was a barely sketched movie character who was made entertainingly threatening by a compelling actor. The initial spike of recognition that comes from calling a show Taken rather than, say, Sister-Missing Tough Guy doesn't make up for the irritation that will come from viewers seeing how little of the big-screen Taken's DNA is actually in NBC's drama, and how little of substance has been added to take its place.
Cast: Clive Standen, Jennifer Beals, Gaius Charles
Developed for TV by: Alexander Cary
Executive producers: Alex Cary, Matthew Gross, Luc Besson, Edouard de Vesinne, Thomas Anargyros
Premieres; Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)