“I would sacrifice anything for her,” is how Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) expresses his love for his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), in Taken. The sentiment is the kind of thing fathers are prone to saying when, as hypothetically as possible, they imagine what they’d do if the unimaginable happened to their child. It's an expression of devoted love and primal fear, bundled together with the implied fantasy of how far they might be willing to go for their kin, and it’s this trifecta of love, fear, and fantasy that forms the very bedrock of Luc Besson's Taken series. In short: Villains kidnap and threaten Mills’s family, and he exacts brutal, thrilling vengeance upon them.
Action movies are often vicarious fantasies of masculine invulnerability, but the Taken movies are even narrower in focus, looking specifically at fatherly invulnerability. The series effectively becomes, as the author Nathan Whitlock aptly puts it, “a first-person shooter for Dads.” It invokes the scenarios and imagery of paternal fears to provoke an angry bloodlust that it then lets Neeson's character—as vengeful proxy—release. The appeal of Taken is Mills the superdad honoring all those “I’d take a bullet for my kid” promises by making others take bullets for threatening his kin.
The result is high in entertainment value for dads and non-dads alike—the Taken series has made $600 million worldwide and counting for a reason. As with most action movies, there’s something cathartic about seeing unambiguously bad people get their comeuppance, but the franchise goes about it in a much more unsavory and emotionally manipulative way.
Before the Taken movies let Neeson off the leash to shoot and brutally beat a lot of people, they offer a more quotidian and considerably less violent picture of fatherhood. In Taken 3, Mills buys Kim a big stuffed panda, and it may as well be his non-lethal spirit animal: They’re both big softies. Mills is a typical day-to-day father who dotes on his daughter and worries about her. He’s wary of boyfriends, requests check-in calls, and is apprehensive about letting her travel abroad alone. It’s doubtless familiar territory to fathers and children alike.
But the franchise, which perpetually imperils both Mills’ daughter and his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), isn’t remotely interested in everyday family life at its most idyllic and tranquil. Fatherhood, for all its joys, means being aware on some level that your worst nightmare—your child being hurt or threatened—is a real possibility. The Taken series has consistently conjured a family man’s most horrific “What ifs?”—kidnapping, sexual slavery, torture, death—into (movie) actuality. By crafting scenes like the one showing a drugged and barely dressed Kim being auctioned off for her virginity as Mills has to watch, the series exploits fathers’ worst fears on-screen while enabling them to imagine even worse scenarios off-screen.
In his review of Taken 3, the Vulture critic Bilge Ebiri refers to the film and its ilk probingly as “Dadsploitation.” In most revenge films, The Horrible Thing—a loved one gets hurt—happens, then becomes backstory. In the Taken films, the threats are sustained, and the Mills women’s lives are perpetually imperiled. The 48-hour time period Mills has to save Kim from a life of sexual slavery in Taken, for example, keeps the potential terrible fate constantly urgent and imaginable. Fathers aren’t allowed to forget what nightmares might await Kim, and by extension, their own child. The Taken series never stops stoking—as the Vanity Fair critic James Wolcott puts it—“the fear and fury of perdition enflamed by the prospect of young female sexuality defiled.”
As Slate’s Dana Stevens writes, “The notion of an über-competent, unstoppably brave, impossibly calm superdad who will find and protect you at all costs … well, that’s powerful stuff.” The Taken films are partly love letters to fathers in that sense. But they’re love letters composed by dipping ink into fears dads try not to think about. They invoke bad feelings to invoke entertaining ones, and seize on real fears to fulfill unreal fantasies. As enjoyable as it is to see Mills use his “very particular set of skills” to save and avenge his family, it’s problematic that the series depends so heavily on terrible things happening to his most cherished relations.
Taken isn’t the only movie of its kind that makes this kind of bargain. The Searchers, Hardcore, Commando, Ransom, Man on Fire, Point Blank—to name just a few—all have plots that revolve around fathers and father figures racing to rescue a child or loved one from an unseemly fate. Yet even in such esteemed company, the Taken series stands out. Similar movies based on rescuing imperiled loved ones tend to either focus either on portraying fatherly nightmares (The Searchers, Hardcore), or providing entertaining SuperDad fantasies (Commando, Man on Fire). Rarely do you see both exist as co-dependently as they do in Taken. The franchise has found a winning formula rendering fathers’ worst nightmares and most glorious fantasies onscreen at the same time, but doesn't pause to consider the impact of tying them together so inextricably.