Taken: American Exceptionalism and the Post 9/11 Western

“If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t. I will look for you. I will find you, and I will kill you…” Liam Neeson’s memorable dialogue marked a turning point in the action/adventure genre. Released in 2009, Morel’s Taken, stripped the genre down to its bare minimum; foregoing complicated espionage plots and desert warfare, the film focuses on a lone protagonist on a quest to save his daughter from being sold into sexual slavery by foreign gangsters who have infiltrated European society.

With an estimated domestic gross of $145 million (“Taken”) and nearly double that in the international markets, the film spawned two sequels and countless imitations with Neeson as the leading man – effectively propelling Neeson beyond the melodrama roles of his early career (“Taken”) into full action-star status. Many bloggers and internet junkies, both domestic and abroad, praise Neeson’s role as a modern-day John Wayne, a cowboy who knows the rules do not apply to him (A-Frozen-Shadowhuntress); other reviews claim that film’s shot after shot of “fists, bullets, and fast-paced, car pursuits” (ActionStar875) are just clean fun. Indeed, the film’s simplistic plot is overshadowed by its fast-paced fight choreography and overt use of explosions, making Taken a high-stake adrenaline ride and a favorite amongst the masses (“Taken”).

Given that Taken demonizes non-western cultures, refusing to even identify the nationalities of the villains, I half expected the film to be banned in international theaters and heavily criticized on the home-front. However, the opposite effect seems to have taken root (“Taken”). Despite the simplicity of the narrative and the almost cartoonish portrayal of the evil foreigner, the film proved to be a blockbuster phenomenon.

I find the film’s success surprising and a bit disheartening. In the digital age, one click of the mouse connects individuals from different locales across the globe, fracturing the cultural barriers that separate nations and bridging the distance between the Eastern and Western worlds (McGee 16). Yet, Taken still upholds the East versus West dichotomy, signaling what can only be seen as a regression for Hollywood cinema (Ray 69-72; Shohat and Stam 146). In researching this relapse into imperialism, I discovered the film held a hidden agenda.

This essay will conduct a formal and social analysis of the film, focusing its genre and presentation of the American hero as a metaphor for contemporary American culture. By extending Robert Ray’s analysis of the western to include post-millennial culture, I propose Taken combines the “American exceptionalism” of the Studio Era with the American foreign policies of a post 9/11 society.

By structuring the narrative around an reluctant hero, Taken utilizes the conventions of the western genre (Altman 12; Grant 18-20) in order to present American audiences with an international crisis that is easily resolved; the film demonizes the foreign other (Shohat and Stam 146-147) and maintains American superiority in order to soothe the fears of terrorism that gripped the nation following the 9/11 attacks (Jentleson; Ray), providing the illusion of triumph in an uncertain war.


The Formal Paradigm

The backbone of my research stems from Robert Ray’s, A Certain Tendency: Hollywood Cinema from 1930-1980, regarding Ray’s analysis of the formal and thematic paradigms of Classic Hollywood. Studio Hollywood emphasized story over style (Ray 48); thus, the formal elements of the film became subordinate to the film’s narrative. Acting shifted away from the ostensive performances in favor of a more naturalistic representation (Ray 50; Schatz 206); editing served to make each movement of the camera seem effortless, allowing the narrative to unfold in a series of linear shots (Ray 52). The misé-en-scene bolstered the narrative by providing the audience with the optimum vantage point to watch the story progress (Ray 52). Thus, the formal paradigm of classic Hollywood increased the sense of realism provided by the cinema, fostering viewer identification with the lead characters and complete absorption into the film’s mythos (Ray 53).

The Invisible Style and Taken

The post-WWII era signaled the end of Hollywood uniformity, but the “invisible style” (Ray 69) advocated by the studio system persisted. Though a film’s use of special effects has become a popular selling point, the focus on a film’s characters and narrative remains the guiding force behind most mainstream blockbusters – Including Taken. The use of classic Hollywood’s invisible style found in Taken increases the effect of the non-stop action sequences, allowing the male lead to seem invincible as he takes down villain after villain. The entire narrative of the film revolves around the character of Bryan Mills. Only Liam Neeson’s character develops throughout the film; his daughter, his wife, and even the villains are limited in terms of screen time and serve as mere props meant to showcase Mills.

Furthermore, the film continues to uphold the rule of the 180 axes (Ray 48; Schatz 212), ensuring the audience always sees the action from the best point of view. In the case of Taken, the best vantage point of the action revolves around Mills’ perspective. When standing on the rooftops of Paris, the audience watches with Mills as he spies on the gangsters running their operation. During car-chases and fight scenes, the camera distances the viewer from the action but always keeps Neeson at the forefront of the frame – rarely does the audience glimpse the back of the actor. Beyond his daughter’s kidnapping scene, Neeson is the only actor privileged by the close-up, and the mise-en-scene in every scene is left open to further showcase the entire physique of the Mills. Thus, the viewer’s identification with the main character increases as the audience roots for his triumph.

The Western and the Reluctant Hero

While the invisible style of Ray’s formal paradigm ensures that the viewer will be completely entrenched in the film’s narrative, the true agenda of the film can only be assessed by discussing Ray’s thematic paradigm. In his analysis, Ray reaches a bold conclusion: all Hollywood films are westerns, be they disguised or overt (Ray 71-72). The western narrative is defined by the dichotomy of the individual, embodied by the outlaw hero, versus the official hero who represents the collective identity of the nation (Ray 72). Though these values contradict each other, both extremes represent the fundamental principles of American ideology (Cullen 42- 44; Ray 85). The outlaw hero lives by his own code. Convinced that civilized institutions are corrupt and will hinder a citizen’s ability to construct his own destiny (Ray 86), the outlaw hero depicts the rugged individualism that characterized the history of the nation (Cullen 45).

The official hero, however, represents the collective identity of a nation. Typically a man who supports law and order, the official hero serves as the champion of the community (Ray 86). According to Ray, the tension between the official and outlaw heroes fuels the narrative of the western film; this tension, due to the inherent differences of these two figures, can only be reconciled through the creation of the reluctant hero (Cullen 45; Ray 89-90). Essentially, the reluctant hero is an outlaw hero who temporarily becomes part of the collective (Neal 120-123); the reluctant hero joins the community in order to vanquish an imminent threat and returns to his solitary lifestyle by the end of the film (Ray 92).

The reluctant hero enables the viewers to enjoy both individual liberty and the stability provided by the community (Grant 18), creating the illusion that both ideals can coincide in one individual without causing a crisis of identity (Neal 124). Ultimately, the reluctant hero is the myth of the frontier made flesh (Grant 21; McGee 17). By riding off into the proverbial sunset, he keeps his liberty after making the community safe and leaves to start again (Grant 20-22; McGee 18). This “have it all mentality” reinforces the theme of American Exceptionalism (Jentleson 196; Cullen 46). Originally coined as a political term, the concept of American exceptionalism stems from the idea that America’s culture and historical founding is unique amongst any other nation (Jentleson 195; Cullen 47).

Bryan Mills and the Reluctant Hero

The character of Bryan Mills exemplifies Ray’s thematic paradigm (Ray 45-48); he is the narrative’s reluctant hero (Ray 89). Bryan Mills, however, differs drastically from reluctant heroes of the Studio Era, but instead exemplifies the post-heyday western (Cloutier 29). First and foremost, Mills is a man past his prime. Unlike the typical reluctant hero who recaptures his individuality by film’s closing credits, Mills begins and ends the film with the desire to join the collective (Cloutier 29). Retired from his career, Mills seeks only to reconnect with his family and the community at large. His individuality is no longer something that he prizes (Cloutier 29). However, reluctant heroes of the post-heyday western are incapable of separating themselves for their rugged individuality (Corkin 68-69); this proves true for Bryan Mills who is provoked out of retirement by his daughter’s kidnapping (Cloutier 30). Experienced in combat, Mills uses his thinly defined skills to wreak havoc on a gang of foreigners who have kidnapped his daughter and other white females in order to sell them into sexual slavery.

Though the narrative heavily implies that Mills’ former occupation is that of an ex-government agent, the film never actually informs the audience as to how Mills acquired his “particular set of skills that make him a nightmare” for the kidnappers. Indeed, any information regarding Mills’ career is largely irrelevant. All the audience needs to know is that he is a white American (Cloutier 31) capable of handling any situation that the film can throw at him. Like the outlaw hero, Mills shows little regard for the rule of law (Ray 86). He steals cars, blows up buildings, tortures gangsters, and even shoots an un-armed woman whose husband is loosely associated with a sex-trade operation.

Every action sequence of the film showcases the character’s relentless brutality (Cloutier 31-33). In fact, Mills’ extreme display of violence surpasses any of the villains in the film. However, the viewer’s sympathy never wavers from Mills. No matter how intense his behavior becomes, no matter how much property he destroys, the viewer continues to identify with Mills because his mission is a righteous one – to save his daughter. In fact, the narrative manipulates the viewer into celebrating every act of violence (Cloutier 33). No official hero exists within the film’s narrative to temper Mills’ outlaw tendencies (McGee 29), but none is needed. If anything, Mills’ actions are justified by the narrative’s depiction of all European institutions to be either inept or corrupt. Thus, the only form of justice found within the film is the justice that Mills provides.

The Action/Adventure and the Western

Despite its classification in the action/adventure genre, Taken remains, at its heart, a western film in disguise. This assessment rests on one simple principle in genre theory: genres are not fixed categories (Altman 15). Whenever a genre runs its course with the popular audience, the genre adapts reworking familiar conventions in different ways to produce a new style (Altman 16). This genre evolution explains Taken’s placement in the action thriller section of the video store. After WWII, the Western narrative fell out of favor with the mass audience which no longer found comfort in the easy solutions provided by the film (Corkin 68; Neal 120). The cowboys of Wild West no longer fascinated viewers (Corkin 68; Neal 120). Hollywood essentially closed the frontier, and to many, the genre was considered dead and buried (Neal 125).

However, the genre is alive and well, continuing in a different form (Altman 15). The action/adventure genre is a natural extension of the western (Neal 125). Both genres feature a central male protagonist whose violent history proves to be useful throughout the course of the narrative (Neale 127). The action film merely substitutes the gunslinger stand-off of the western with rapid-fire hand to hand combat (Neal 127). While the western presents the frontier as the source of danger, the contemporary action/adventure film demonstrates that the threat of narrative stems from crime and invasion (Jeffords 73; Neal 128). Furthermore, both genre’s glorify a tough, masculine identity and reinforce a patriarchal society (Jeffords 75). Overwhelming, men dominate both genres; men are the aggressors and, by extension, saviors while women are present only as temptresses, such as in spy films, or passive objects in need of rescue (Jeffords 75). Taken’s emphasis on Bryan Mills and his mission to save his daughter cement the film’s classification as a modern-day western, exchanging rustic showdowns for urban warfare.

Unthinking Eurocentrism: The Dark Side of the Western

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The film’s success signals a revival of Robert Ray’s formal and thematic paradigms (Ray 45-48). Unfortunately, the return of the western narrative comes at a cost. In order to bolster the status of the American hero, the foreigner must be demonized. The film accomplishes this task using the rape and rescue trope of colonial narratives (Shohat and Stam 157). The entire premise of Taken rests upon the American hero’s quest to save his daughter. The white man must save the white, virginal daughter from the colored, foreign gangster. This trope is further reinforced in the film’s unrated version. Instead of opening with Mills working as a bodyguard for a pop singer, the unrated version opens with the main character watching a home-video of his daughter’s 8th birthday while finishing a secret government mission. The film dissolves into flashes of Mill’s skills during his service as a government agent but these flashes are interrupted with a return to the video of his daughter’s birthday. This small alteration from the theatrical release forces the viewer to associate the daughter with innocence; instead of meeting her as a teenager, the viewer sees her as the Mills sees her – as a child, his child.

The rape and rescue trope used in Taken plays upon the worst stereotypes Americans hold about the eastern world: men of a foreign culture infiltrate western civilization in order to possess and rape western women (Shohat and Stam 157). The girls kidnapped are showcased for rich buyers Middle Eastern buyers to purchase as sexual slaves; the protagonist’s daughter is sold to an old sheik who already possesses several sex slaves and is seeking someone younger and, ultimately, whiter. Therefore, the film endorses any action taken by Bryan Mills to save his daughter from sexual assault and preserve the racial hegemony of the white race (Shohat and Stam 158). The film’s use of the rape and rescue trope preserves the dichotomy of the West versus the East (158). The protagonists’ near invincibility ensures his success regarding the rescue of his daughter. In saving his daughter, Mills is protecting western society from the corrupting influence of the East (158).

Beyond the rape and rescue trope, Taken uses the “western gaze” (148) to further demonize the foreign other. According to Shohat and Stam, the western gaze is defined by the narrative’s introduction of a foreign culture through a western perspective (Shohat and Stam 148). In Taken, the audience’s exposure to non-western culture is filtered through the perspective of Bryan Mills. Any information about the foreign culture that is not relevant to the protagonist remains irrelevant to the viewer. This is reinforced at the kidnapping scene as Mills tells the kidnapper, and the audience, “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know what you want.” These questions are never answered for the viewer. The nationality of the gangsters along with their motivations remain cloaked in mystery. The audience learns only that some members of the sex-trafficking operation speak Albanian and others speak a language that the protagonist never identifies. Thus, the viewer is blocked from connecting with the foreigners by a language barrier, ensuring that the protagonist’s negative view of eastern culture is the only view that the audience adopts.

The film further alienates the viewer from the foreigners by associating them with crime, terrorism, rape, poverty, and drug abuse. The gangsters live in the ghettos of Paris, holing themselves up in the ramshackle buildings while playing cards, assembling guns, and drugging white women. Many of these women, including the daughter’s friend, die from an overdose. The gangsters, whose names are never mentioned, dress in dusty, black clothing and with their skin are covered in tattoos. Though the gangsters are well equipped with machine guns and an assortment of knives to terrorize their victims, they are easily outsmarted by the protagonist. Mills’ character is an expert at every task he performs.

He effortlessly hacks phone and radio frequencies; he rigs explosives out of everyday materials, and he is fully capable of using any type of weapon he finds. These skills along with Mill’s proficiency in hand to hand combat ensure that he will save his daughter. The victory of the protagonist upholds the superiority not only of western civilization but of American culture. Bryan Mills, after all, is American. Since the narrative presents Mills as the only one who can save his daughter, America is the only force in the global world that can stop the threat presented by eastern culture – an alluring theme for a post 9/11 viewer.

Taken and Post 9/11 Society

In order to examine Taken’s relation to the post 9/11 society, let me provide one last history lesson. According to Robert Ray, “in time of crisis, Americans turn to American stories” (Ray 129). Ray’s analysis referred to America’s involvement in the Second World War; before the incident of Pearl Harbor, the issue of breaking away from isolationism divided the American nation (Jentleson 321). Rather than take a clear position on American Foreign Policy, classic cinema focused on romantic melodramas and adventure narratives, leaving all global affairs pushed beneath the surface of the main narrative (Jentleson 321; Ray 129). After WWII, the mainstream audience became fractured (Corkin 67).

The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, however, demonstrated the opposite effect (Jentleson 322); rather than exploiting the differences of the American people, the devastation of the attacks resulted in increased homogeneity across the nation (Jentleson 322). Governing organizations called for immediate retaliation; the news media rallied behind the politicians (Jentleson 322). All methods of transport took drastic measures to increase security (Jentleson 323). Racial profiling became commonplace for law enforcement and massive xenophobia spread across the nation. All citizens with any relations to eastern culture immediately fell under suspicion (Jentleson 323).

Ray’s observation about Americans retreating into American stories in times of crisis rings true. Ultimately, the success of Taken is linked to the massive spread of xenophobia and American homogenization of the post 9/11 society. Taken depicts the gangsters as an invading enemy, corrupting western society from within. In a very poignant moment in the film, Mill’s infiltrates the kidnappers’ organization posing as a corrupt government official of Paris. As he surveys the weapon capabilities of gangsters and listens for the voice he heard on the phone when his daughter was kidnapped, Mills tells the organization that “the price for looking the other way is too high; your ways have to change.” The organization leader accuses Mills of extortion and blames this price increase on the fact that they are immigrants. Squaring his shoulders, Mills closes the distance between the leader and himself.

Mills responds. “I’m against you because you are criminals. You come to this country and exploit our resources. You think because we are tolerant that we are weak. Your arrogance offends me.”  In the context of the film, Mills is pretending to push for an increase on the money the gangsters pay the French government to leave their business alone; however, the scene is ripe with double meaning. Nothing happens in a vacuum; with the trauma of 9/11 still fresh within the hearts and minds of the American viewer, it would be difficult to ignore the nationalistic fervor in Mill’s words. The correlation the character draws between immigrants and criminals along with the accusation that immigrants exploited national resources and funding echoes anti-foreigner sentiments of the nation.

Using the colonial tropes of the western, Taken features a white American protagonist who must save his daughter from being sexually enslaved by the foreign other. The film’s narrative taps into the same American exceptionalism that characterized classic Hollywood cinema in order to serve as a metaphor for the war on terror. By depicting a war that, through the actions of a single individual, can be easily won, the film upholds the superiority of American values against an invading foreign force. Taken merely reflects the cultural phenomenon of the American post 9/11 society; this retreat into the imperialist tropes of the western is only temporary. Roughly three years after the film’s release, YouTube channels and online commentary critiqued the negative portrayals of foreigners, the simplistic plot structures, and the film’s endorsement of the protagonist’s brutal behavior (Cinemasins; ScreenJunkies); yet, the focus on comedic entertainment does, somewhat, diminish the value of their criticisms (Cinemasins; ScreenJunkies).


According to Robert Ray, the breakdown of the studio era and the cultural anxiety left in the wake of the Second World War fragmented the homogeneity of the mass audience. No longer could Hollywood afford to rely on the old reliable themes of the rugged individual. America left isolationism and took its place in the global community; this change in foreign policy was reflected in the American cinematic culture as an influx of foreign films infiltrated theaters and the American consciousness. Thus, streams of Eurocentrism and American cultural superiority gradually became undone. Film narratives now targeted a more diverse audience. However, in times of crisis in American history, culture and, by extension, film reverts back to the formal and thematic paradigms of the studio era. Unfortunately, the return to Ray’s twin paradigms fosters negative stereotypes of foreign cultures; this demonization of the Eastern world, while lamentable, enabled the American audience to create a nation-wide collective identity that demonized foreigners in order to soothe the nation’s fears.

Works Cited

“Taken.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Amazon Company, 2008. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.
A-Frozen-Shadowhuntress. “What’s not to Love about Liam Neeson.” Movies are My Day Job. Tumblr, 17 March 2013. Web. 19 February. 2015. Blog.
ActionStar875. “Taken.” A Good Day to Fight. Tumblr, 23 July 2013. Web. 21 February. 2015. Blog.
Altman, Rick.  Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute, 1999. Print.
CinemaSins. “Everything Wrong with Taken.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 6 Jan. 2015. Web. 7 Feb. 2015.
Cloutier, Jean-Christopher. “A Country for Old Men: Unforgiven, The Shootist, and the Post-Heyday Western.” Cinema Journal. Vol. 1 No. 4. Texas: University of Texas Press, summer 2012. Web. 18 Jan. 2015.
Corkin, Stanley. “Cowboys and Free Markets: Post-World War II Westerns and U.S. Hegemony.” Cinema Journal. Vol. 39 No. 3. Texas: University of Texas Press, spring 2000. Web. 18 Jan. 2015.
Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of the Idea that Shaped a Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.
Grant, Barry Keith. Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology. Great Britain: Wallflower Press, 2007. Print.
Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Regan Era. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993. Print.
Jentleson, Bruce W. American Foreign Policy: Dynamics of Chaos during the 21st Century. 5th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 2000. Print.
McGee, Patrick. From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Print.  
Neal, Steven. Genre and Hollywood. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.
Ray, Robert.  A Certain Tendency of Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985. Print.
ScreenJunkies. “Honest Trailer: Taken.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 6 Jan. 2015. Web. 7 Feb. 2015.
Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. University of Minnesota: Illinois, 1988. Print.
Shohat, Ella and Stam, Robert. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

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