In the US: Monday, 10/9c, NBC
In the UK: Tuesdays, Amazon
Pierre Morel’s Taken is a classic action thriller. For those who by some miracle haven’t seen it, it features Liam Neeson playing an aging former spy who’s now down on his luck now he’s divorced from his wife Famke Janssen. He also doesn’t get to see his teenage daughter Maggie Grace (Lost) very much. But when Grace goes on a holiday to Paris with one of her friends and is abducted, Neeson puts into practice his ‘very particular set of skills that [he’s] acquired over a very long career’ to find Grace and rescue her.
As I mentioned quite some time ago now, it’s basically the movie that cemented Liam Neeson’s reputation as one of the West’s top action and martial arts stars. It’s not without flaws – certainly the idea that Neeson would go into paroxysms of panic at the thought of his daughter going to Paris as she would be far safer in her home town of Los Angeles is a little bit laughable. But it’s much smarter than you’d think and has some great action sequences. Just don’t watch Taken 2 or Taken 3 since they are not good movies.
Taken obviously has some unique features: Neeson isn’t a spring chicken; he’s a family man but has an estranged wife and daughter; he operates virtually alone, with only a friend or two with equally useful special skills to help him; the film is set in Europe; and Neeson has all manner of dead-drops, contacts and tradecraft to draw on in his challenge.
Strangely, NBC’s Taken uses none of this to try to tell a story that probably didn’t need telling – how Leeson got his special skills. Except it doesn’t even do that.
A prequel series, it stars Clive Standen (Vikings) as the young Liam, now revealed to be an ex-Green Beret who served in Colombia fighting drug cartels. Now back in the US, he’s on a train with his sister when she’s killed during a shootout with some men Standen thinks were after him. He then has to go on the hunt to find the man who sent them and who wants to punish him for some of his past actions.
Although he doesn’t know it, he’s drawn the attention of a covert unit headed by Jennifer Beals (Flashdance, The Chicago Code, Proof) that operates outside the rest of the US intelligence community. Wanting to get to said bad guy, too, she’s happy to use Standen as bait but if he can get there by himself, that’s a win, too.
Guess whom she wants to hire by the end of the episode…
Taken is as much a prequel to the movie as Bates Motel is to Psycho, being resolutely set in modern times rather than the 70s or 80s, right down to ubiquitous iPhones. But at least Bates Motel aspires to set up the events that lead to its parent movie in some way. Here Standen arrives fully formed as an action hero, in little need of building up an already potent skillset that nevertheless seems unlikely even for a Green Beret. There’s the occasional reference to his not being married or having children yet (“Pray you never have a daughter”), but that’s about it.
Neither does it embody any of those unique qualities of the movie. The show’s clearly setting up Standen becoming part of a undercover team to fight drug cartel actions in North America (and possibly South America), so is going to be almost nothing like the movie. Indeed, rather than being a prequel to Taken it’s better to think of the series as NBC’s attempt to do its own version 24, since it has a more or less identical set-up, with Standen basically Jack Bauer in the Kim-less seasons, Beals and co the CTU of the piece.
Standen is at least a decent stand-in for both Sutherland and indeed Neeson – a former international Thai boxer and fencing gold medalist, he was also born in Northern Ireland and actually makes the effort to do a sort of blended American-Northern Irish accent à la Liam. Also among the cast is The Unit‘s Michael Irby, who’s obviously got a good action pedigree to draw on, too.
Although there are plenty of moments during the pilot where you find yourself asking “Why doesn’t he just…?” or “Why did he do that, FFS?”, Taken also does at least have some surprisingly good action scenes (unlike Taken 2 and Taken 3) and from time to time, actually does something surprising, different or unusual from the usual beats and twists of action TV plotting.
Nevertheles, Taken is largely still a generic series that offers little to really differentiate it from any other semi-ensemble action TV show. It could be worth watching if later episodes take the show in new or unusual directions or make it more similar to the movie, but at the moment, Taken is Taken in name-only.