Taken is a strange example of the recent onslaught of movie-to-TV adaptations. Instead of trying to recreate the specific circumstances of the film and stretch them out into a season-long story or repetitive procedural, á la Lethal Weapon, Minority Report, Training Day or even the underrated The Exorcist, the series attempts to make its mark by going the prequel route, thereby creating a new scenario by which it can attempt to define the character of Bryan Mills and effectively serve as the origin of a man with a very particular set of skills.
The series hedges its bets on the idea that Mills is an interesting character worth exploring in greater detail. That notion is debatable at the outset and continues to be after the first few episodes of NBC’s new series, starring Vikings‘ Clive Standen as a younger, unmarried, and childless version of the action hero whose onscreen exploits were deemed worthy enough to launch an inexplicable trilogy. The thing is: Even in the films Mills wasn’t a particularly fascinating character. Rather it was his circumstances that were compelling, which again makes the idea of a prequel series based on his pre-Taken exploits a curious decision that perhaps overestimates the interest the audience has in seeing Mills become the man who would eventually use his frequent flyer miles to rescue his daughter from a European vacation gone awry.
Once it shuffled past the xenophobic concerns of a deadly helicopter parent, the Taken series was most notably marked by the concept of revenge, and that those who seek vengeance open themselves up to a never-ending cycle of violence, an eye-for-an-eye scenario that perpetually leaves both sides looking over their shoulders half-blind. After Mills rescued his daughter from the clutches of European sex traffickers, he was plagued by demented evildoers hell bent on seeking retribution for loved ones killed in the act of doing evil. The films’ villains were remarkable for their ignorance of the rules of cinematic justice, a trait that carries over to the inciting incident of the TV series.
While traveling by train with his sister Cali, Mills spots two men carrying guns and decides to intervene. His sister is struck down in the ensuing chaos and Mills returns home unaware Cali’s death was no accident, but a hit carried out by the head of a cartel as retribution for the son Mills killed saving the life of a DEA agent in South America. At the same time, Mills is being watched and surreptitiously recruited by Christina Hart (Jennifer Beals), the head of a clandestine government agency that “doesn’t officially exist” – which is action-movie talk for “deals with bad guys without all that pesky red tape involved in upholding the law”. It makes for an interesting two-pronged approach for the premiere; Mills playing both the hunter and the hunted, uncovering the truth about his sister’s death while unwittingly taking part in a job interview he passes with flying colors.
That unwitting interview unfolds through a series of well-staged action sequences interspersed throughout the hour at regular intervals, ensuring the pilot follows in the footsteps of its cinematic namesake. Having spent the better part of the last five years swinging swords and bashing shields as Ragnar Lothbrok’s covetous brother Rollo, Standen takes to the kinetic action immediately, using his imposing stature to both dominate his opponents and recall Liam Neeson’s towering physique, so as to not break the illusion that Bryan Mills will one day go on to traipse across Europe righteously killing thugs to underline the idea that father knows best. To that end, being a prequel is both a justification of the series’ existence and a hindrance to its character development, which, oddly extends well beyond Mills’ already established future.
Taken finds it difficult to define Mills, Hart, or anyone else beyond their involvement in a secret government task force. After the first few episodes there’s little evidence that any of the characters can be identified outside a handful of surface-level characteristics. One guy has a mustache, and another, Gaius Charles, used to play high school football in Dillon, TX. Other than that, there’s no sense of who these people are when they’re not listening to the attempted assassination of their newest potential recruit over a hacked iPhone or chasing bad guys through parking garages. Hart’s team is a crack squad of commandos but they lack distinctive personalities that might otherwise give the audience reason to be invested outside the frequent bursts of action. Even their goal is hazy at best. There’s a vague sense that Hart’s squad is helping keep the country safe – whatever that means – but the indistinctness of their mission and its parameters only adds to the muddled textures of the series as a whole.
The decision to adapt Taken into a television series seems one of probable success rather than creative inspiration. Even the third film’s global box-office take indicates there are plenty of eyeballs just waiting for more of Bryan Mills and his violent adventures. Whether they will tune in for a television version of his early exploits is another question altogether. Beyond the question of potential viewership, though, translating Taken into a weekly television series affords an opportunity to define Mills as more than the person bad guys will rue the day they crossed. Early on, however, the show doesn’t seem interested in functioning as anything other than a platform for occasional fisticuffs, car chases, and gunplay. That works fine for a 90-minute movie, but for a weekly hour-long television to define itself in a post-Jack Bauer world, the show needs to develop a greater sense of character to justify its status as a prequel and the importance it places on the man Bryan Mills will one day become.
Taken continues next week with ‘Ready’ @10pm on NBC.