When Taken was released in 2008, it looked at first glance like a modestly budgeted, cleverly high concept, essentially throwaway thriller. The most noteworthy thing about it was its surprising star: Liam Neeson, he of the brooding mien, baritone brogue, and impressively varied acting résumé. Neeson was not a stranger to popcorn movies — he’d appeared in the Star Wars prequels and Batman Begins — but the former Oskar Schindler hardly seemed like anyone’s obvious heir to Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Van Damme. Taken, however, was a huge, surprise hit, grossing roughly $150 million domestically, and soon, just like Die Hard before it, Taken had launched an action subgenre all its own.
So what makes a Taken clone? In these films, an aging male superstar plays a world-weary former covert operative with a particular set of skills who’s pushed back into his former life by a child/spouse/dog being threatened/abducted/killed, at which point he systematically hunts down and imaginatively kills a bunch of tattooed Russians/Albanians/vaguely Slavic-seeming gangsters. There are, of course, slight variations on these factors, but usually most of them are accounted for. But unlike the Die-Hard-in-a-Blank subgenre, Taken clones are not identified primarily by their plot; instead, the telltale element is the pedigree of the film’s star — whether it’s Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, Mel Gibson, Keanu Reeves, Kevin Costner, or newly added to the list with this week’s The Gunman, the Oscar-winning Mr. Sean Penn. Just as in the ‘00s, every quality actress of a certain age found new life as the lead in a premium cable series about a troubled and complicated woman (Weeds, Damages, Nurse Jackie, The Big C, The Closer, Saving Grace, United States of Tara), now every quality male actor of a certain age seems poised to star in a mid-budget action film about a grizzled covert operative who’s pushed beyond the edge and decides to kill a bunch of Europeans. Neeson himself has become a one-man genre, making two more Taken films and four more Taken-ish films since Taken’s release just seven years ago.
So which of these Taken knockoffs is actually worth your time? Here, an entirely subjective attempt to definitively rank the Taken clones.
1. Taken (2008)
It seems inappropriate, and even foolhardy, not to rank the film that started the trend as the best example of said trend; here I invoke Rule No. 4 from Bill Simmons’s invaluable article, “The Action Hero Championship Belt,” which states: “You can’t win the Action Hero Belt by shamelessly ripping off the movie that won the current champ his belt.” The same principle should apply to the movies themselves. Ergo, Taken is the greatest Taken film.
Like Die Hard, Taken’s best virtue — besides, of course, the phone call — is its elegant simplicity: Liam Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a man with a very particular set of skills, acquired over a very long career, which makes him a nightmare for people like you, assuming “you” are faceless Albanian gangsters who kidnap his teenage daughter about five minutes after she lands in Paris on a trip her father specifically warned her was too unsafe to undertake. Kids! At the film’s beginning, Mills is not only estranged from his 17-year-old daughter, Kim, he’s so comically emasculated that when he shows up at her birthday party with the present of a cherished karaoke machine, he’s instantly one-upped by his ex-wife’s sneering new hubby, Sir Winston Von Fatwallet (note: fact-check that name), who trots out his present, which is, of course, a horse. How’s Mills supposed to compete with that? Well, it’s easy — once his daughter is taken, his particular skills lead him to Europe to save her from a gang of swarthy Albanian sex traffickers, all of whom Mills subsequently dispatches with brutal and inventive élan.
What’s really striking about rewatching Taken now, is the fact that it’s not so much a movie about an ex-CIA agent murdering most of Europe (though it is that), or a middle-age man reasserting his endangered virility (though it is that too), but a movie about a father fighting desperately to preserve his daughter’s chastity. This is not so much a masculine fantasy of late-life potency as it is a parental fantasy of children who never advance into the sordid realm of adult independence. Neeson, it turns out, is perfect for this role, and he brings something to the action genre that had long been lacking as it languished in the custodial hands of interlopers like Vin Diesel: actual acting chops. He will come after you. He will find you. And he will kill you.
2. John Wick (2014)
Released last year, Wick stars Keanu Reeves as the titular assassin, a quiet man who’s dragged back into the mayhem business when some jackass Russian gangsters kill his dog. (The dog, it should be said, was a gift from his late wife.) Everything looks great in this movie, from the expertly choreographed fight scenes to Reeves in a series of perfectly cut bespoke suits, and Reeves is well-suited (pun intended!) to play a hit man so taciturn that he’s basically a personification of lethal Zen. The film also understands, and even seems to gently parody, the obligatory mechanics of the genre: you kill man’s dog; man kills you. (There’s a great scene in which one gangster is informed that they’ve killed Wick’s dog and his reaction is basically, Well, yes, okay, now we’re all going to die, of course.) The film’s biggest detriments are the fact that it gets less exciting as it goes along — Wick starts by coolly dispatching a whole house full of assassins, and ends with a mano a mano fistfight in the rain with a Russian gang-lord who looks about 30 years older than Wick — and the inclusion of the Continental Hotel subplot about a hotel that services only professional killers. The subplot isn’t bad — it’s great, and thus unfortunately nods to an even better, more interesting movie. Still, John Wick is the most stylishly distinctive of the post-Taken action movies, and the one that, like the Continental, you’ll most want to revisit.
3. The Grey (2011)
This film, about a bunch of plane crash survivors in the wilderness being stalked by a pack of wolves, isn’t really a Taken clone, given no one’s an ex-covert operative, no one gets taken, and these men are battling animals, not Albanians. But it is Neeson’s best action film, which seems reason enough to rank it here at number three. Which brings us to …
4. A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
Like The Grey, this isn’t a straight-up Neeson bone-breaker, or even really a thriller — instead, it’s a brooding, affecting noir adapted by director Scott Frank from the novel by crime master Lawrence Block. Neeson plays Matthew Scudder, Block’s classic ex-cop alcoholic, who’s conscripted to solve a series of grisly kidnappings that target drug dealers. This is the kind of thriller that is just as happy to traffic in melancholy as mayhem, which suits Neeson to a tee — and which also may be why it was largely overlooked by movie fans when it was released in late 2014. But it’s a great, satisfying, unsettling film — one in which it takes a very long time for the bullets to fly and the punches to land, but when they do, it feels like they actually matter.
5. The Equalizer (2014)
Neeson’s acting skills make him a rarity among action stars, but truthfully, the category of skilled-actors-who-can-also-convincingly-kick-ass belongs entirely to Denzel Washington. In fact, Washington’s Man on Fire — in which a world-weary CIA operative goes on killing spree after a child in his care is abducted — would be a high-ranking Taken clone if it hadn’t come out four years before Taken; as it stands, it’s more like the Ur-Taken. The Equalizer isn’t the Ur-anything, and it wobbles in its final act, when Washington dispatches a slew of bad guys using hardware in a Home Depot–style store, in what starts to feel like an homage to ‘80s splatter films like Fun House or My Bloody Valentine. Still, The Equalizer best exemplifies something that’s true of all of the Taken-style films: Just as superhero movies play to the adolescent fantasy of a misunderstood, picked-on kid who suddenly discovers miraculous superpowers, these Taken films play to the middle-age fantasy of an unassuming man who, pushed too far, turns out to have a secret wall safe full of automatic weapons and knows 40 different ways to break your wrist. This may not be the most healthy fantasy to propagate, but it’s one that Washington embodies better than any other actor alive, including Neeson.
6. Run All Night (2015)
The newest Neeson action film is one of his more successful, largely because it takes the Taken formula and soaks it in Irish whiskey and regret. Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, an Irish mob enforcer who must take on his old employers after he kills his boss’s repugnant kid to save his own son’s life. The boss is played, with delicious intensity, by Ed Harris, and the two actors seem pleasantly surprised, in their shared scenes, to find someone else in the movie who’s interested in acting and not just action. (To be fair, the secondary cast, in particular Joel Kinnaman as Conlon’s son, is also strong.) The substitution of an estranged son for the usual imperiled daughter may be less manipulative/exploitative/effective, but it does set up the thematically rich parallel of two broken men dealing with wayward heirs. Also, in a break from the standard Taken conventions, Conlon, as a killer, is mostly a knuckleheaded thug; his particular set of skills is limited to the fact that he’s almost always willing to shoot first.
7. Edge of Darkness (2010)
This film, which stars Mel Gibson as a Boston cop trying to solve, and ultimately avenge, his daughter’s killing, is Taken-esque only in the superficial elements (aging superstar lead; imperiled family member; revenge spree); in fact, it’s a stretch to even call it an action film, since it plays closer to Silkwood than to Stallone. Edge of Darkness is based on a successful 1985 BBC miniseries — directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) who also directed this adaptation — which helps explain why the film, while intermittently enjoyable, feels like six hours’ worth of conspiracy theories crammed into two hours’ worth of movie. Still, Gibson, looking haggard, haunted, and spent, is very effective as the driven father — it’s probably worth noting that before Taken’s famous phone call, Gibson delivered his own famously quotable phone call to some punk kidnappers in Ransom.
8. The Gunman (2015)
Perhaps it’s fated that Sean Penn would eventually join these ranks — he’s intense, can out-act just about anyone, and, let’s face it, Liam Neeson can only make so many movies every year. (Currently, that number seems to be four.) The Gunman gets further Taken points for being directed by Pierre Morel, the director behind the original Taken. Unfortunately Penn, while an excellent thespian, is not a very good action hero: For one, he seems genetically incapable of cracking a smile, let alone a joke. Every great action hero needs at least two modes: kicking ass crossed with something else. For Bruce Willis, it’s kicking ass crossed with cracking wise; for Schwarzenegger, kicking ass crossed with Teutonic deadpan humor; for Neeson, kicking ass crossed with weary warmth. (Watch him again in the Taken films trailing his daughter around with giant teddy bears.) In The Gunman, as a former CIA killer who’s now targeted for elimination, Penn has two gears: grim and grimmer. It’s weird to see an actor who’s so adept at conjuring other people’s personalities prove so incapable of finding different facets of his own.
9. Non-Stop (2014)
Or, as you might call it, Taken On a Plane. Neeson plays Bryan Mills — sorry — Bill Marks, a federal air marshal who finds himself framed for a hijacking even as it’s taking place on the plane he’s aboard. What starts as a compelling, Agatha Christie–style parlor mystery starts to unwind once the mysteries are revealed, and the film generally suffers from the lack of a single compelling villain, since for most of the movie the bad guy is just a bunch of anonymous texts sent to Marks’s phone. In fact, one of the curious and dubious innovations of the Taken subgenre is that these films often don’t have villains, just targets. They’re all John McClane, no Hans Gruber, which is a shame, because Hans Gruber is at least half the fun.
10. Taken 2 (2012)
Like Die Hard, much of the pleasure of Taken came from its clever puzzle-box premise and, like Die Hard, this pleasure proves difficult to replicate. Neeson does his level best to sell the idea that this time, it’s his ex-wife who’s been takened, and Taken 2 melds the “I can’t believe this is happening again!” sentiment from Die Hard 2 with the vengeful-relative-of-vanquished-villain plotline of Die Hard 3, and winds up worse than both. Director Olivier Megaton takes over the franchise, and he makes Paul Greengrass look like Kelly Reichardt, never using two edits when 18 will do. Also, the scene in which Kim, who we’ve been continually reminded can’t pass her driver’s exam, basically learns how to drive on the fly as she races a stick shift (!) through the narrow streets (!!) of Istanbul (!!!) is, perhaps, the most implausible scene in the history of action movies, which is really, really, really saying something. P.S. Once you’ve seen the first two Taken films, you owe it to yourself to watch this excellent Taken Honest Trailer.
11. 3 Days To Kill (2014)
Kevin Costner mostly aces this audition to play world-weary CIA super-killers with daddy issues, so it’s a shame that this particular film falls so flat. Concocted and co-written by Taken auteur Luc Besson and directed, oddly enough, by McG, 3 Days to Kill is about a CIA operative with terminal cancer and an estranged daughter, who’s enlisted to bring down a vaguely defined enemy called the Wolf. The fact that 3 Days is so shamelessly similar to Taken would be more problematic if Besson wasn’t simply ripping off himself. There’s a soulful movie in here somewhere, but it’s obscured by weird elements such as Amber Heard as a mysterious latex-clad CIA overlord who wears platinum wigs and looks like a refugee from Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. Also, there’s a character in the film who’s referred to only as the Albino but isn’t, in actuality, a person with albinism. Also, everyone’s always commenting on what a sloppy dresser Costner’s character is, yet he wears scarves in every scene and looks pretty dapper. Then again, it takes place in Paris, where maybe “scarves every day” is barely a rung above “hobo.”
12. Unknown (2011)
Or, Taken Loses Its ID And Can’t Cash Its Traveler’s Checks Anywhere. Neeson stars as Bryan Mills — oops — Martin Harris, a doctor who goes to Europe, winds up in a coma, then wakes up to find his identity has been stolen and another man is posing as him. Even his own wife doesn’t recognize him! What in the whaa? This was Neeson’s first collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra, who also made Non-Stop and Run All Night, and the good news is, their films seem to be getting better. The bad news is that this one strains arduously and unsuccessfully to be Hitchcockian, right down to casting January Jones in the classic Hitchcock role of the Icy Blonde Who Can’t Act. As with Non-Stop, Unknown’s questions are much more intriguing than its answers, which means the trailer is much more intriguing than the film. Unknown does manage to best Taken in one important respect: as a cinematic manifestation of American tourist Europhobia. Sure, in Taken, Neeson’s daughter gets sold into slavery, but here, no one will even accept his credit cards.
13. Taken 3 (2014)
Director Olivier Megaton returns to deliver this uninspired mess, which should probably be called Untaken, since no one is actually taken. Instead, Mills’s ex-wife, Lenore, is killed off quickly and callously, given that she’s one of only three characters who’s appeared in all three films. (Her rich jerk husband, Stuart, he of the literal gift horse, is portrayed here by Dougray Scott, as a totally different looking- and acting-person than the Stuart from film one, played by Xander Berkeley.) Mills is framed for her murder, naturally, and sets out, Dr. Richard Kimble–style, to catch the real killer. He proceeds to beat up, handcuff, pistol-whip and generally render insensate multiple members of the LAPD — all of whom are basically just trying to do their jobs by catching a renegade murder suspect — yet is never held to account in any way because in the end he was right all along, which apparently grants you blanket immunity for all crimes, forever. For example, no one ever mentions the loosed shipping container that goes hurtling end over end down the freeway, crushing several cars, which presumably have people in them. This is another odd feature of the Taken genre: It’s okay to commit any crime up to and including shooting and injuring innocent bystanders, as long as it’s in service of proving your own innocence/protecting your daughter’s endangered virtue.
14. The November Man (2014)
Pierce Brosnan stars as Agent Not James Bond in a film about a world-weary CIA operative who’s pushed into action to save a former informant/flame, who’s nonetheless shot dead by Brosnan’s former protégé/nemesis, an as-yet-not-world-weary CIA operative named David Mason. It’s CIA versus CIA! Spy versus spy! Some people shooting other people! In a brave departure from the Taken blueprint, Brosnan’s character (okay, his name is Peter Devereaux) does not have an imperiled child, until suddenly, late in the film, he does, at which point you’ve forgotten/stopped caring about who’s fighting who and why and everyone’s just kind of shouting. Based on a popular novel, this adaptation never gels; I never thought I’d say this, but it suffers from a severe lack of tattooed Albanian gangsters.
15. Stolen (2012)
Nicolas Cage; master thief; imperiled daughter; one last score. No Albanian gangsters, but does feature Josh Lucas in tinted sunglasses, a bad wig, a taxi, and a prosthetic leg. Raise your hand if you guessed that the worst film on this list would be the Nicolas Cage one. Now high-five yourself, because you are right.