Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why I'd rather hang out with Bryan Mills from "Taken" than Jack Bauer of "24" any day

While going through my DVD collection, I noticed the seasons of “24” that I owned.  I realized that, even though I loved, and was obsessed with, the show while it was in first-run airings on Fox, I had no desire to relive the series in reruns, except for maybe Season 2.  After you know all the plot twists and surprises, there actually is very little left to go back and enjoy because you never get emotionally invested or engaged by any of the people on-screen.  The characters are all plot devices that, with some rare exceptions, were never carefully thought out or consistently written since they were all malleable to the whims of the writers.  There was never a clear vision to them because they were susceptible to doing 180-degree turns if the lazy writers dictated it.  (Season 2 was an exception because it was the only one where the plot and characters had a clear and natural progression, and you were as engaged by the personalities and the relationships on-screen as much as you were by the skillful plotting.)

The one character who seemed to have a clear vision, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), eventually became a pretentious bore and a drag to watch.  At first, it was appealing to watch a hero who was willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good, who was ruthless in doing what he felt was right, blah, blah.  But, after awhile, he became a character who wallowed in self-pity due to the failures of the relationships in his life that were the consequences of his ruthless and short-sighted actions.  He was estranged from his daughter for much of the series, and spent way too much time obsessed with his “one true wuv,” drippy Audrey Raines (the mealy-mouthed Kim Raver).  He became an incredibly negative and heavy-handed character, and his “I-feel-the-weight-of-the-world-on-my-shoulders” act grew tiresome.  This was more damaging to the character and the show than the charges of fascism and brutality that were lodged against it by harsh critics.  It was a mistake to continually kill off main characters just for shock value and to narrow the focus of the series to Jack.  This meant that the emotions and tenor of the entire series rested on the unstable psyche of a character who was even moodier than Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds) in "Stage Door" (1937).  The show’s vision of Jack as a perpetually tragic figure makes it difficult to revisit it on DVD or reruns.  After awhile, it’s just not FUN to watch anymore.  I say this with great reluctance because I used to be such a devoted fan of the series. 

Despite some similarities, the Liam Neeson character in the thriller “Taken” is everything that Jack Bauer is not.  When I watched “Taken” for the first time in the theatres, I found myself comparing these two characters.  Bryan Mills, like Jack Bauer, is a ruthless agent who has participated in dangerous missions while serving his country and, as a result of focusing much of his attention on his career in the CIA, has an awkward relationship with his own teenage daughter.  (Interestingly, both men’s daughters are named Kim.)  But Bryan Mills has retained one quality that Jack Bauer has lost: hope.  Even with all he has experienced in the course of his dangerous career, he still finds things to enjoy in his life and is determined to repair his relationship with his daughter.  When the movie opens, we see Mills driving a cheap compact car and living in a dingy Los Angeles apartment.  Neeson does a wonderful job portraying Mills as an ordinary guy.  He works security at rock concerts for extra cash, and his attempt to impress his daughter with a karaoke player on her birthday is upstaged when his ex-wife’s wealthy husband gives her a horse.  But Mills hasn’t given up on himself and remains grounded and positive.  When his other former CIA colleagues show up for an impromptu BBQ, he still has the ability to relax and have a good time.  When the rock singer, whose life he has saved, offers to give his daughter singing lessons to repay him, he is clearly excited at the opportunity to give her something her rich stepfather cannot.  When his daughter is kidnapped while on vacation in Paris by Russian mobsters determined to sell her into white slavery, Mills is determined to get her back not merely because he loves her, and does not want to see harm come to her, but because he knows the potential still exists for good in his life as long as he can rescue her. 

Despite his brutality and ruthlessness, Liam Neeson infuses warmth, unexpected optimism, and a refreshing lack of pretense into Mills.  Neeson’s unconventional interpretation of the character helps to ensure that Mills never degenerates into sanctimonious self-importance the way Jack Bauer did.  At the end of “Taken,” when Mills rescues his daughter, he is finally able to give her something that her wealthy stepfather was unable to: her freedom.  Because the filmmakers of “Taken” paid as much attention to the logic and motivations of the characters as they did the action, this scene has more emotional impact than anything “24” or Jack Bauer were able to muster in 8 seasons.

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