Saturday, May 16, 2009

What's Hate Got to Do With It

Taken was just released on DVD last week. You may recall that it opened in the theaters in January, which is when I saw it. I remember watching the previews and thinking that it had a pretty good setup. I must have not been alone in that regard since the movie took in just north of $140 million domestic. That’s a nice number for a film released in January, which is usually a sign of a dog. I doubt the producers are disappointed with the box office performance, and for the most part I liked it. However, I don’t think it was all it could have been.

If you haven’t seen it, Liam Neeson plays a former CIA badass whose 18 year old daughter gets kidnapped with her friend on their first night (no parents) in Paris. The kidnappers don’t know who her father is, and it’s the classic case of they-picked-the-wrong-guy-to-mess-with scenario. To make matters worse, the kidnappers are sex slave traders, raising the stakes considerably for Neeson’s character. So far so good.

The problem? Characters. Namely, other than Neeson’s character, the other characters are vastly underutilized. I’ll leave aside the main character’s buddies who appear a lot in the first act, only to never return. More to the point, this film sorely lacks a villain. Actually, it has a lot of villains, seven or eight maybe. But that’s the problem. Neeson's character goes to Europe to find his daughter and encounters a succession of bad guys who he quickly and expertly dispatches, one after another, none of them ever to reappear. Finally, in the third act, Neeson’s character's daughter is on a yacht belonging to a rich, unnamed Middle Eastern guy, surrounded by tough-looking Middle Eastern bodyguards. The thing is, we have never seen these guys before. The rich guy has just purchased the girl and appears for the first time in act three.

OK, he’s still villainous. After all, he’s a purchaser in the sex slave trade. We don’t like him, nor should we. But we don’t hate him. Why? Because we don’t know him!

Listen, movies are all about emotions or should be anyway. Sympathy for the main character, enmity for the villain, and so on. But in order to work up a decent level of emotion, you need to know the character. This is true in life as well as movies. Hate is not a particularly healthy emotion to harbor in real life, but I’m assuming most of you have felt it at some point. And if there’s anyone you do hate, I guessing you have a considerable history with that person. It’s hard to hate someone you don’t know, just as it's hard to love someone with whom you have no connection.

Taken would have been a far better film had the story progressed to the third act with a single main villain who has managed to cause considerable pain to the main character, while at the same time managing to elude capture that was tantalizingly close on more than one occasion. Think the original Die Hard for example. In Taken, Neeson’s character picks off a number of lesser characters who could have filled that villain role, one by one, much like in a video game (probably accounting for the film’s success at the box office).

I don’t know why the writers made the choices they did, but I’m guessing that they wanted to accurately depict the layers of the sex slave market and they probably felt that a single baddie would not stay in the picture as that sex slave was passed from one level of the sales chain to the next. Great. But this isn’t a documentary. The idea in a feature film is to entertain and create drama. And to maximize the dramatic impact, you must invent! Whenever possible, find a way to keep the ultimate villain in the story. Doing so will ensure that the audience is truly invested in the outcome of the final battle.

I don’t mean to suggest that there was no pleasure to be felt from Neeson’s character’s rescue of his daughter on that yacht. There was. We were relieved and happy to see them reunited. But we would have been even happier and more relieved had we been teased by the ultimate baddie for nearly three acts before watching him receive the ultimate punishment.

Now you may think that hero facing the villain is too traditional and that there's room for variation on that theme. Perhaps. But if you haven’t already seen this film, watch it and tell me how satisfying you feel at the end and then consider how much more you might have felt if that first villain, the young thug who had kidnapped the daughter in the first place, wasn’t killed early in act two, but instead met his fate on that boat in act three, after being more villainous and narrowly escaping Neeson's character for the better part of an hour.

As a writer, you want your audience to connect with the story, and emotion is what creates that connection. Hate is a valuable cinematic emotion. Don’t waste it.

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