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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
I remember taking a chance on a low-budget revenge-thriller film called Taken in January of 2009. I was at the movies most likely because I was working very hard on my Masters at the time and needed a momentary escape from that mayhem. I just wanted a few hours of mindless entertainment to separate myself from the real world. I was already a Liam Neeson fan and I have enjoyed some of Luc Besson’s work in the past (particularly The Professional), but I had no idea that I would become such a big fan of Taken, a would-be generic genre film that went on to become a huge hit and spawn a massively successful franchise. I also had no idea how big of an impact Taken would have on Hollywood.
In case you doubt its legacy, here is a list of Taken-esque films that came in Taken’s wake:
The November Man
Edge of Darkness
Bullet to the Head
Taken 2 (aka Taken in Turkey)
From Paris With Love (which shares a director with Taken)
Unknown (aka Taken 1.5)
A Man Apart
Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear
Non-Stop (More Liam Neeson!)
Three Days to Kill
A Walk Among the Tombstones (He just keeps getting these roles!)
There are certainly others that I am forgetting as well. Of course these films vary wildly in quality (I loved John Wick and hated Sabotage – I like Unknown quite a bit as well). The point is, Taken had a huge impact on filmmaking, such that basically any male actor in the 40-to-60 age range almost certainly has their own version of Taken at this point. I’m guessing the Red Box machine is just littered with direct-to-DVD Taken rip-offs starring guys like Michael Dudikoff and Randy Couture. Most people have almost certainly seen between one and three of these films more than likely. The point, however, is that revenge/thriller, or “dad fiction” as they’ve become popularly known, is certainly huge now.
What I love about films in this genre (and remember, I don’t like all of the films I’ve listed here) is that they appeal to me on a primal level. A troubled, beaten man loses something, and either wants revenge, wants to take what he lost back, or both. Taken was a huge hit because it built off of the primal fear of losing a loved one and then jumped into a lone wolf fantasy about getting that loved one back. The fact that Taken is, especially in its uncut version, pretty violent and visceral, is just a plus. I remember my first viewing of the film, and the scene that stuck with me then (and still sticks with me now) is when Neeson’s Bryan Mills executes a rich scumbag in an elevator in Paris. Before dying, the scumbag mutters, “It’s not personal.” Neeson retorts, “It is to me,” before gunning him down in cold blood. Not only did I find this incredibly shocking at the time, I also found it satisfying and bad-ass.
The big obvious thing is that Taken didn’t invent this genre – not at all. In the 70s and 80s, Charles Bronson starred in a series of films, beginning with 1974’s Death Wish, that essentially covered the same territory (ironically, Neeson was set to star in a proposed remake of Death Wish that would have been directed by his A-Team director Joe Carnahan). Death Wish was incredibly controversial at the time, trumpeted by conservatives and scorned by liberals. I imagine that even today, Taken is more than likely most popular with conservative males in their 50s. Even though the Death Wish films became increasingly cartoonish, they still essentially featured one man on a mission to either save his family, save his woman, or clean up the streets, thus saving New York City or whatever from the drug dealers and hippies that want to destroy our youths and ruin our great cities.
Other than appealing to some of our baser instincts (Revenge! Action! Drama!), films in the dad fiction genre tend to be much cheaper than typical Hollywood tentpoles, allowing them to be incredibly profitable. Taken 2, for example, grossed nearly 400 million dollars worldwide on a budget of only about 45 million – a huge hit. By contrasts, Russell Crowe’s Biblical epic Noah scored 260 million dollars worldwide, but cost about 125 million to produce. Neeson’s Non-Stop cost a relatively low 50 million dollars and grossed over 200 million worldwide. Similarly, Taken 3’s budget is an extremely thrifty 48 million dollars. Even if it only grosses half of it’s predecessor worldwide, it will still be a moneymaker for 20th Century Fox. I have to imagine that if it overperforms, there will either be a Taken 4 or a Maggie Grace-starring spin-off (which would be really interesting).
These films are really the type of films we should be pressing Hollywood for. They don’t require an advanced degree in Marvel or DC, they tend to eschew the typical 90-minute love story format, they are violent and often R-rated, they are incredibly cheap to make, and are largely profitable and popular. Too often it seems as if movie studios invest in two or three 250 million dollar films a year rather than a series of low-budget films designed to appeal to an underserved or neglected audience (this is exactly why I have never minded Tyler Perry’s movies – they fill a purpose and their success gets Jason Statham movies funded!). I, quite frankly, don’t give a shit about superhero movies, movies based on young adult book franchises, or whatever shared-universe bullshit Hollywood foists upon us every year. I get that they are popular – I have just largely outgrown them (and can we be honest for a moment? Catching Fire Part 1 was awful).
Hollywood is far too afraid to step outside of the traditional four-quadrant movies all too often these days, and dad fiction is about as close as we get to good old-fashioned one-quadrant filmmaking. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making a movie designed solely to appeal to one or two specific groups of people, particularly when these films cost relative peanuts compared to your Avengers and Batmans. These films are violent, visceral, primal, and entertaining. The good guy wins and the bad guy gets his in the most satisfying of ways. So give me three or four of these things a year – I promise I will go see most of them in theaters (I would see Maggie Grace in Taken 4: Daughter of Taken twice in theaters!). I might be the only one watching John Wick 2 (please!), but at least it won’t have to gross a billion dollars worldwide just to break even. Dad fiction has, over the past half decade, been a triumph of cinema for me. Keep ‘em coming, boys.