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TV Review: ‘Taken’ on NBC

Variety logo Variety 2/23/2017 Maureen Ryan
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The most relevant question to ask of the TV reboot of “Taken” just might be: Will the valet guys like it?

In the cult of Liam Neeson, no film has higher standing than “Taken,” in which a good deal of the plot is described by the title of the film. In one of the most famous sketches from “Key & Peele,” two employees at a valet stand compete to determine which of them has a more fanatical loyalty to all things Neeson. Anyone who’s ever found themselves relishing the actor’s recent action pics (despite plot holes and other slapdash elements) can likely understand their devotion.

In NBC’s “Taken,” Clive Standen (“Vikings”) stars as the lead character from the film — but his version of Bryan Mills is 30 years younger than the grizzled operative played by Neeson. Still, there are a great many kidnappings in this take on the movie, and occasionally Bryan is the one who’s grabbed by the bad guys. But more often than not, Bryan and the team of government operatives he eventually joins are the takers — always for justifiable reasons, or so they say. In any event, over the course of the first four episodes, an array of people are shoved into a number of utilitarian vans, which doesn’t exactly depart from the core premise of the “Taken” films.

Still, if the “Key & Peele” characters were to tune into the “Taken” pilot, it might strike them as erring too much on the side of derivative dourness. The color palette is a grim array of washed-out blues and grays, and viewers barely meet Bryan, a former Green Beret, before his life is struck by tragedy. The way that inciting incident plays out couldn’t be more flat and formulaic, and there’s a general air of dutiful tedium in the pilot that only begins to dissipate when the team around Bryan begins to cohere in later episodes.

The likable Standen is no Neeson in the charisma department, and the underwritten Bryan is not one of the most gripping parts of the drama, especially in the early going. More electricity is supplied by Jennifer Beals, who plays Christina Hart, the leader of an off-the-books spy team; Gaius Charles and Michael Irby are the standouts in the supporting cast. The actors around Beals and Standen play experienced soldiers, techs and spies who provide boots on the ground for operations overseen by Christina. As the “Taken” ensemble takes shape and the drama lightens up and begins to work up a head of steam, it ends up being more satisfying on the plotting and action fronts than, for instance, “24: Legacy,” a recent action-oriented reboot that didn’t quite gel in its first few installments.

For all its thematic adherence to the Neeson films, the TV series, to its credit, tries to be more than just another network drama showcasing gun battles, car chases and bone-crunching fistfights. It doesn’t waste much time before it at least touches on the internecine wranglings on the higher levels of the intelligence community, the ambiguous role of mercenaries, and the unsettling manipulation of the executive branch. Executive producer Alexander Cary did a stint on “Homeland,” and some of that show’s DNA has transferred to this much less complicated drama.

“Taken” has its share of generic elements, but Christina’s competent ruthlessness is one of the show’s most interesting touches. Is her brutal pragmatism justifiable, or does her team have too much power and autonomy? It’s not quite clear, but questions about power and the proper use of force appear to be hard-wired into the core of the story. All in all, there’s a promising whiff of subversion amid the expected scenes of characters being told to listen very carefully to a set of chilling instructions.

The show has a lot of pieces to juggle, and it doesn’t always weave its multitude of plots together gracefully. In particular, the attempts to give Bryan a personal life feel forced, and he’s saddled with an ongoing vengeance storyline that doesn’t seem like the best possible use of, well, his particular set of skills.

That said, the third episode recalls the thoughtful Cinemax actioner “Strike Back,” (and that’s a compliment). The storyline about a Muslim family in that installment is far less predictable than it first appears (though it doesn’t erase the reality that most Muslim characters on American television appear within the context of terrorism plots, and that kind of stereotyping remains a big problem in the realm of scripted programs). In this episode, however, “Taken” zigs where it was very much expected to zag, and though Bryan’s ongoing nemesis isn’t particularly fascinating, it is something of a relief that a meat-and-potatoes network drama at least attempts to avoid the most obvious ideological traps and thematic cliches when it comes to terrorism plots.

There are various matters of logic that “Taken” asks the audience — and those enthusiastic valets — to ignore, and, as a reward for doing so, it holds out the promise that the team’s goals and the increasingly assured pacing will make the suspension of disbelief worth it. The biggest problem for Bryan’s superiors is that he tends to go rogue and not listen to instructions when it suits him (and in true Neeson style, being the team’s unpredictable wild card suits him quite nicely). But for fans of action hours who don’t mind mixing the conventional with a few bits and pieces that are moderately unconventional, it might be worth seeing what kind of decisions Christina and Bryan end up taking.

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