With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
“I really thought it would be kind of a little side road from my so-called career.” That was Liam Neeson, respected veteran actor, talking about the movie Taken six years after its release. “Really thought it would go straight to video… I was stunned.” So was pretty much everyone else. Taken was a cheap $25 million B-movie that came out of nowhere and made back its budget more than 10 times over. In America, it came out the same year as Avatar, a year that was otherwise dominated by movies from the Harry Potter and Twilight and Ice Age and Transformers franchises. (In Europe, where it came out a few months earlier, Taken was a 2008 movie.) But Taken succeeded by being what none of those movies was. It was a brief, tight, nasty, intense old-school action movie. It turned out that people still wanted to go see those, especially if they had the right star.
And Liam Neeson was the right star. Before Taken, Neeson had been in action movies (Darkman, Next Of Kin), and he’d been in action-adjacent blockbusters (Batman Begins, Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace). But nobody really thought of him as an action hero. Instead, he was an empathetic leading man, his world-weary Irish brogue and crinkled hangdog handsomeness conveying the impression that he’d seen some things in his life. In Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg had used Neeson as a vehicle to portray the crushing weight of responsibility, and Neeson had done similar things in Michael Collins and Les Miserables and even, in its own way, Love Actually.
But then Neeson got pulled into the Luc Besson machine. Besson, the French director, had gotten famous for 1990’s La Femme Nikita, probably the least French, most American French movie that the world had ever seen. With that movie, and then with 1994’s Leon: The Professional, Besson proved himself a virtuoso at fast, giddy, cheerfully exploitative action-movie filmmaking. And while Besson kept directing movies, he also went about founding an empire, starting the Europa studio and producing a vast succession of unpretentious mid-budget B-movies, the sorts of things that Hollywood pretty much stopped making in the late ’90s. The movies Besson produced were sometimes in French, like the Taxi series. But just as often, he and his proteges shot in English, bringing in international casts and crews and making movies that would play just as well in Seoul or Melbourne or London as they would in Chicago.
Besson must’ve seen something in Neeson. For one thing, Neeson is a physically imposing figure. His 6-foot, 4-inch height just makes him normal-tall in the regular world, but it makes him Dikembe Mutombo in Hollywood, where everyone is tiny. For another, he’s got the gravity and confidence to carry himself as an absolute ass-kicker if the situation requires it. And since Besson was making Taken in the post-Bourne era, it didn’t even matter whether Neeson could fight or not; with a bit of training, along with some jittery camerawork and chaotic editing, he could be made to look like a human weapon. And that’s what he was in Taken.
Now: Taken isn’t a great movie. It’s fine. It’s pretty good, even. But it didn’t have the ambition to be a great movie, action or otherwise. Its plot is a simple, slapdash thing that plays on ignorant American fears, the bland daughter getting kidnapped and sold into sex slavery minutes after arriving in Paris. Neeson spends the movie careening around the city, barking demands and beating up anonymous goons who never get a chance to show any personality. There’s no central villain worth hating, and the fights are pretty unsatisfying—partly because none of the characters can hang with Neeson’s Bryan Mills for more than a few seconds, and partly because director Pierre Morel shot them all in a disconnected blur.
Morel was a longtime cog in Besson’s factory. He’d done cinematography on the Besson-produced The Transporter and Unleashed, and he’d only directed one movie: the dystopian parkour romp District B13, an Escape From New York rip-off that stars guys who can leap between rooftops in real life. That movie fucking rules, mostly because of its breathtaking action scenes, featuring actors who were in there for their ability to do impossible things and not for their actual acting skills. But Morel abandoned that sort of clear, kinetic filmmaking for Taken, and the movie suffered for it.
Taken is also a kind of dumb and simplistic movie. It basically depicts the world as what a xenophobic, middle-aged American dad might imagine: a grim cesspit of scheming foreigners who can’t wait to take your daughter away from you. Mills does a lot of Jack Bauer-style torturing of enemies, and in one particularly raw scene, he even shoots a bad guy’s wife (nonlethally) so that he’ll give up whatever information Mills needs. There’s also a scene where Mills lectures a roomful of Albanian gangsters on why they are bad immigrants: “You come to this country, take advantage of our system, and think that, because we are tolerant, we are weak. Your arrogance offends me.” This, even though Mills is also a foreigner in Paris, and even though he’s probably broken nearly as many laws as the guys he’s fighting.
But Taken still works, and it works entirely because of Neeson, who sells the heaviness of his character beautifully. In the early scenes, he does the sort of doting-dad stuff he’d already done in Love Actually, showing subtle pain when his ex-wife chews him out or when his daughter gets pissed at him for not letting her go to Paris. (Classic clueless-dad reaction: “Why would you want to go to Paris?”) We learn early on that he’s a special-forces badass type—the kind of character that Steven Seagal would’ve played 15 years earlier—when his old CIA buddies come over for drinks and when he disarms a random knife-wielding assailant who comes after the pop star he’s protecting. But he’s sad and sympathetic and heavy-hearted. So it’s fun to watch him snap into icy-badass mode the moment he realizes his daughter’s being kidnapped.
The phone scene in Taken, the one where Neeson tells his new nemesis all about his very particular set of skills, is a masterpiece of its form, and it’s way more effective than any of the movie’s actual action scenes. It conveys everything you need to know about the character and about the movie’s stakes. The whole speech was in the trailer, and that, more than anything, was probably why Taken made as much money as it did. Steven Seagal wouldn’t have been able to deliver that speech. No previous action star would’ve been able to deliver that speech, at least not the way Neeson did. And that speech, more than anything, was why Taken became a mini-genre of its own for years afterward.
Taken in general, and that speech in particular, seemed to wake Hollywood up to the idea that an aging, respected star could potentially become a credible action-movie badass. Neeson, of course, went on to make two more Taken movies, both of which are somehow more ridiculous than what came before. Taken also became a TV show for NBC, and it has apparently done well enough to get a second season, though I haven’t seen a single episode. And Neeson followed Taken with a string of bizarrely satisfying hardboiled thrillers and action movies. It’s been a hell of a run. In recent years, Neeson has made a few truly great movies, like Non-Stop and A Walk Among The Tombstones, and even lesser movies like the Taken sequels and Unknown have been a lot of fun.
But the real legacy of Taken might be the way virtually half of the middle-aged stars in Hollywood have now made their own Takens. Denzel Washington made a Taken with The Equalizer. Michael Caine made a Taken with Harry Brown. Kevin Costner made a Taken with 3 Days To Kill. Pierce Brosnan made a Taken with The November Man. Sean Penn made a Taken with The Gunman, and Pierre Morel actually directed it. Nicolas Cage’s Taken was such a Taken that it was called Stolen. Halle Berry recently got a Taken with Kidnap, and Jackie Chan, of all people, will get a Taken with The Foreigner. (Pierce Brosnan is in that one, too, but it looks like he’s the adversary.) John Wick was probably supposed to be a Taken when it was green-lit, but it’s starting to become its own genre. (As in: Atomic Blonde is Charlize Theron’s John Wick.) The Takens have been a good time, and it’s fun to think about how an entire subgenre grew out of that one one-minute movie speech. Lots of actors, it turned out, couldn’t wait to show off their own very particular sets of skills.
Other notable 2008 movies: Runner-up honors go to Ip Man, star Donnie Yen and director Wilson Yip’s biopic about the martial-arts folk hero who went on to become Bruce Lee’s teacher. Ip Man, a massive hit in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Europe, probably represents Yen’s best pure movie-star performance; he radiates decency and humility even as he’s charismatically beating up a whole room full of Japanese soldiers. The movie launched a franchise—three movies in and counting—and it includes some of the best fight scenes of the past decade. This one is a particular favorite:
Asian action cinema in general was on a roll in 2008. South Korea in particular stepped up that year. Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird was a ridiculously fun screwball adventure with some dizzying gunfights and more energy, perhaps, than any movie of its kind this side of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser was a brutally effective chase movie about a pimp on the trail of the serial killer who keeps kidnapping, torturing, and murdering his employees. And Jang Hoon’s Rough Cut was a deeply strange meta-movie about a movie star bringing in an actual gangster to co-star in his action movie and the gangster only agreeing if they get to fight for real. The movie itself drags, but it all leads up to a truly spectacular brawl on a muddy riverbank where, after a few minutes, you can’t even tell which fighter is which.
2008 was also the year John Woo came back to Hong Kong, making the spectacular two-part historical-warfare epic Red Cliff. In Thailand, Tony Jaa turned Ong-Bak 2, the sequel to his breakout movie, into a strange and often thrilling period piece that features vampires and stampeding elephants. (There are intricate, hard-hitting fight scenes that involve real elephants.) And the original Ong-Bak’s director made Chocolate, a ripshit fight movie that really should’ve turned its star, a small young woman named Jeeja Yanin, into just as big as star as Jaa. There were also some nominally Asian movies, which were nowhere near as good. The Chinese/American co-production The Forbidden Kingdom put Jackie Chan and Jet Li onscreen together for the first time, but it also saddled them with an unbearably doofy white comic-relief sidekick. And Bangkok Dangerous threw Nicolas Cage into a remake of a Thai movie from 2000. It sucked.
The big Hollywood movies were noisy, convoluted messes. Wanted brought in Timur Bekmambetov, the director of the incomprehensible Russian fantasies Night Watch and Day Watch, for a CGI-heavy elite-hitman fever dream that utterly disregards the entire idea of earthly physics. Quantum Of Solace, Daniel Craig’s second movie as James Bond, was a confused muddle with what might be the shittiest, worst-shot action scenes in franchise history. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull has its defenders, but it’s generally remembered as just about the worst, least advisable franchise reboot that anyone could possibly imagine. Max Payne, a video game that took its cues from John Woo and The Matrix, became a Mark Wahlberg movie that took its cues from shittier video games. The post-apocalyptic movie Doomsday and Babylon A.D. both landed with thuds; the former because it was such a blatant and uninspired Road Warrior bite, and the latter because it required Vin Diesel to sell a plot that just didn’t make any damn sense.
But the same year gave us a surprising number of hard, gritty Hollywood action movies. Rambo, in which Sylvester Stallone brought his old First Blood character back for one final rodeo, was almost dumbfoundingly brutal; to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a studio movie that’s more violent. It’s also way more exciting than a 2008 Rambo movie should be. Punisher: War Zone, the third attempt at bringing the Marvel vigilante to the screen, is almost hilariously gory. (The best moment might be the part where the Punisher shoots a parkour gang member with a bazooka and he explodes in mid-air.) Death Race remade the Roger Corman exploitation classic as a fun Jason Statham vehicle about prison racing, giving its characters novel ways to blow up each other’s cars. And Never Back Down was a dumb MMA version of The Karate Kid; it was eminently watchable.
A couple of movies also explored the artier wing of action cinema. David Mamet made his own jiu jitsu opera with Redbelt. If the idea of a David Mamet MMA movie with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tim Allen is even remotely intriguing to you, I suggest you give it a shot. And in JCVD, Jean-Claude Van Damme came out of direct-to-DVD semi-obscurity to play a version of himself, a washed-up action star who gets caught up in a robbery hostage situation. There’s a part where Van Damme suddenly floats above the scene and turns to the camera to give a six-minute monologue about his regrets in life while he cries. It’s really something.
2008 also saw the release of two massively influential action-adjacent blockbusters, neither of which quite fits into the genre that this column covers. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight spoke the visual language of action movies; Michael Mann was an obvious influence. But its actual action scenes, with the exception of the spectacular truck-flip, were sloppy, indistinct, and forgettable, as if Nolan couldn’t wait to get back to his vivid, mythic characters. If the actual action in a movie is a perfunctory formality, then it can’t be an action movie. Along those same lines, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was the colorful, charismatic birth of the Marvel cinematic universe, but the fights in that movie might be the one thing that nobody remembers. (2008’s best superhero-movie fights might’ve belonged to The Incredible Hulk, the Transporter and Unleashed director Louis Leterrier’s first foray into big-budget movies, if the CGI monsters didn’t look like such dogshit.) Anyway, by 2008, action and superhero movies were really their own distinct genres, only crossing over in rare cases like 2012’s Dredd. Superhero movies deserve their own column. Maybe they’ll get one some day...
Next time: John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Regeneration, a direct-to-DVD sequel to a not-that-great movie that was 17 years old at the time, brings back Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren for a grainy, visceral meditation on militarism and dehumanization. It exemplifies a moment where straight-to-DVD action movies suddenly became really, really great.