Taken. A film that’s loathed by some for its non-stop violent slaughter of generic foreigners, and loved by others for exactly the same reason. The stylishly-shot film franchise, which started off deplorably fun and wound up just deplorable, found its secret weapon in Liam Neeson, an actor who emerged as the ultimate Bad Dad, a silver fox with enough years on the clock to be different from your usual hero, but with enough charisma and physical presence to still punch his way out of France.
You might be expecting more of the same, based on the pilot, which introduces us to Bryan Mills (Clive Standen) years before he became a lethal secret agent – back when he was just a regular lethal man. Within minutes, a train journey with his sister goes into Taken mode, as bad guys take her from him, and he fights to get her back. He looks angry. He punches people in the face. He explains exactly what his sister has to do very quickly and in a very hushed voice. It’s Taken all over again.
But appearances can be deceptive. All this incident does is attract the attention of a covert intelligence service, which decides to recruit the former soldier to become part of an ultra-classified gang of mega-hush-hush, super-macho operatives. And so we follow Bryan, as he learns to become part of a crack unit of cracking agents.
This learning mostly takes the form of different missions each week, as the team race off to an abandoned warehouse here or an abandoned car park there, almost always to solve some kind of hostage situation. Bryan Mills? Working in a group? That’s perhaps the first misstep of the series, as it presents our proto-Liam Neeson as a guy who’s learning to become a team player – exactly the thing that he isn’t.
It might sound like a minor gripe, but when you’re spinning a franchise into a TV series, some continuity with the sole existing character is key to justify the name. And by turning Taken into something else entirely, NBC’s show loses any sense of identity: it becomes a generic mission-of-the-week actioner, with a stereotypical anti-social antihero at its heart. Action Force. Gun Man. Angry Shooter. He could be anyone other than Bryan Mills.
Clive Standen, who comes to the project fresh from a superb turn in Vikings, is a wonderful performer, capable of wringing humanity, pathos, humour and charm from the most violent of male parts. But with Bryan Mills, a man haunted by a personal loss, faced with a burgeoning romance and sort-of fuelled by revenge as he uncovers a sinister plot, he’s given little to play with that hasn’t been done before. He’s much better than the material, which rushes to present us with female characters in danger for obvious reasons, but fails to give him any sense of vulnerability.
Mills, to be clear, is an unstoppable force, and Standen can do swaggering brutality in his sleep, serving up some impressive fight sequences. But he’s an unstoppable force with no real driving motivation – and the show, like him, struggles to come up with any variety or depth. He doesn’t acquire those particular skills he once spoke of on the big screen with such convincing menace. Every episode in the first four sees him sidelined by the team leader, so he can learn the ropes – only for things to go wrong and him to spring into action and save the day. Why not just send him in first and get things over and done with? That would open up more time for character development, rather than pedestrian action sequences and bad dialogue. Even the team Bryan’s learning to be part of is sadly generic, full of unforgettable sidekicks whose names you won’t remember, even as he begins to bond with them.
“A serial killer once tried to remove my face. What could you possibly do that’s worse?” one suspect actually tells our team at one point. Another character even has to say the words “it looks like he accidentally filmed his father being taken”, while looking through mobile phone footage. Disappointingly dull and a tragic waste of an actor, Taken is a misfiring action thriller. Whether or not you’re a fan of the film is irrelevant: this spin-off is nothing like it. It has a very particular set of skills. Unfortunately, all of them are rubbish.
Taken the TV series is is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Tuesday, starting from 28th February.