It’s always been interesting to me how the American popular imagination is constantly on the lookout for people to identify as Enemy. In the 1950s, when I was growing up, Indians and Nazis and Communists were the enemy. As political attitudes evolved, Nazis remained a convenient enemy, but Indians (Native Americans) were replaced by other ethnic groups—Mexicans, South Africans, East Europeans, and (for the last several decades), Arabs. There was even a period in the 1980s and 90s when outer space aliens substituted for ethnic enemies. The events of September 11 and the ensuing war in Iraq focused the popular imagination not so much on Arabs as on people of the Muslim world.
East European Muslims—Albanians, to be exact—are the enemy in the film Taken (2008, dir. Pierre Morel). This well made, soulless, and intellectually vapid action film operates entirely on a visceral level. Liam Neeson plays a retired U. S. security agent whose 17-year-old daughter is visiting in Paris when she is kidnapped by Albanians who drug her and sell her into the slave trade. Neeson sets out to rescue her, vowing to her kidnapper in a cell phone that “I will find you, and I will kill you.” This he does, with grimly calculating efficiency. I did not count how many Albanian—and Muslims and ethnic individuals of other stripes—met their maker at Neeson’s hands, but the number was high.
Neeson functions in this film like a super hero. He’s relentless and unstoppable. He uses skills acquired as a security agent to track down the kidnappers, the people they work for, the individuals to whom they sell their victims. He shoots, stabs, garrotes, throttles, and otherwise dispatches the bad guys in his quest to find his daughter. The film leaves little doubt that he’ll be successful. While the film is exciting and entertaining, there’s not much tension involved. I watched it with the curious sort of interest one would feel watching someone lining up the colors of a Rubik’s Cube, or putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
As a parent, I understood the obsessive dedication of Neeson’s character to finding and rescuing his child. One can easily imagine that he applied to his work as a national security agent the same single-minded ruthlessness with which he pursues his daughter’s kidnappers.
As if to make clear what the stakes are, the film makes clear that she is a virgin, that she is (as one of her kidnapper’s describes her to a potential buyer) “100% pure,” so she has to be rescued not only from kidnappers who want to drug her and sell her as a prostitute, but from dusky-skinned Arabic-speaking Muslims who want to deflower her.
Taken is a version of the myth of American indomitability and moral righteousness—a myth that events of the last several decades should have dispelled. In this 91-minute film, Neeson (who himself is Irish-born, not a native U. S. citizen) succeeds in defeating and killing the Muslim enemy in a way that the U. S. nation has not managed in various wars over the last two decades.