Colombiana (2011) -vs- Taken (2009)

Colombiana -vs- Taken

Mark Sanchez, Featured WriterThe Smackdown

“You done me wrong – and you’re going to pay!”

How many times have we witnessed the impulse for revenge? In the movies, just consider Michael Corleone, Kill Bill 1 & 2, and fully half of Clint Eastwood’s impressive oeuvre. And in real life there’s Afghanistan, 9/11 and the ever-mounting body count as despots fall from Tunisia to Syria. Depending on whether you’re on the giving or receiving end, a fat slice of revenge can seem like bloody justice.

Audiences have a demonstrated appetite for payback on the screen: Just this summer apes go wild after they’ve had it with the lab experiments, and folks in the Old West strike back when aliens pluck off their neighbors wholesale. Since celebrity trouble and movie trends seem to bundle in threes – where’s the new revenge blockbuster? Well, your seat is waiting.

Colombiana just opened with a stylish, bloody bang from writer-producer Luc Besson. He mines familiar territory with a female protagonist holding her own against long odds (Le Femme Nikita, Leon the Professional, The Fifth Element). This time the heroine is Zoe Saldana, whose character, Cataleya, offers an astonishing response to a traumatic childhood.

Besson has his bets covered in this Smackdown! Having co-written and produced the very popular revenge-fest Taken, from 2008, he can’t lose either way. This Defending Champion features some of the worst characters ever deserving the fate awaiting them. Liam Neeson is the protagonist with a lethal grievance. Grab your flak jacket, put away the moral compass and be glad somebody else will be cleaning the carpets.

The Challenger

Cataleya, our Colombiana, witnesses the murder of her parents as a little girl in Bogota. We learn she is not the type to turn the other cheek and will seek her revenge. She encounters one of don Luis Salazar’s henchmen at the kitchen table; Cataleya puts a carving knife through his hand and begins the best chase sequence you may see in years.

Some children learn singing and softball; Cataleya tackles hand-to-hand combat and advanced weaponry. “I want to be a killer,” she tells Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) in Chicago, and reluctantly, he teaches her. Cataleya is an apt pupil but no angel. By the time the story springs forward 15 years, she’s left two dozen bodies, each bearing her calling card drawn on the chest of every payback: a cataleya orchid.

She wants to quit after taking down don Luis, but there are complications from the FBI, CIA and a boyfriend (Michael Vartan) more hunky than smart. There’s a bloody, horrific showdown, and Cataleya’s work is done.

The Defending Champion

Bryan Mills (Neeson) recoils from the steep price of his commitment to duty. He quit his job with the CIA to reconnect with his teenage daughter, Kim, believing his time with the Company had taken his best years and ruined his marriage to Lenore (Famke Janssen). Although Mills describes his old work as free-range “prevention,” the years undercover taught him a rough business.

Those skills come in handy after Kim and a girlfriend land in Paris and are abducted by a ring of Albanian sex-traffickers. Kim manages to scream out critical clues on her cell phone. The ringleader picks up that phone, and hears an awful prophesy from Mills: “If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I’ll look for you. I will find you… and I will kill you.”

Mr. Low-life should have listened. Without delay, without remorse, Mills goes to Paris and serves up a large order of payback with red sauce. His friend, Jean-Claude, warns: “Try not to make a mess.” Not a chance.

The Scorecard

Don’t be confused by the credits: While Pierre Morel directed Taken, and the intriguingly named Olivier Megaton directed Colombiana, both movies bear the indelible thumbprint of Luc Besson. He wrote both with Robert Mark Kamen, and both benefit from his experienced eye for brisk, well-staged violence. These heroes and villains are matter-of-fact about the extreme circumstances bringing them together. Against that framework, it’s tempting to sidetrack conscience and go along for the ride.

Besson’s success attracts the necessary talent for his creative approach. There’s not a parent alive who doesn’t recognize the regret and controlled outrage simmering within Bryan Mills. Neeson is a fierce father, believable even in his extreme responses. His supporting cast in Taken (Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Janssen) performs well in roles thin on context. A minor side-story involving a singer much like Beyonce provides a first-look at Mills’ hard skills and ties up a loose end in the plot.

As well made as Taken is, Colombiana is the more highly evolved action picture. The pace never lets up; the physical business is a marvel; but the acting offers the big difference. As intense and convincing as Neeson is in Taken, Colombiana should make Zoe Saldana a major movie star, if she isn’t there already from her performances in Avatar and Star Trek. And while Neeson pretty much carries his whole film, Saldana actually risks being upstaged by Amandla Stenberg, the girl playing the younger Cataleya, in a splendid debut. Cliff Curtis as her uncle, and Lennie James as the frustrated FBI man on the case also give strong performances in small, important roles.

The Decision

I need to say this: Extreme action films are not for everyone, but they satisfy a large audience. Taken pulled in roughly a quarter-billion dollars in box office and video sales. Its DVD offers an unrated version that includes even rougher stuff cut from the theatrical release. Not surprisingly, a sequel is on the way, with Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace signed on.

I’m not sure there will be a sequel made of Colombiana. This movie hits all the right notes in Luc Besson’s creative vision: a sympathetic character, sharply defined offenses, responses administered strongly and decisively. No question, Colombiana will be a popular movie, but if story matters, what’s left for Cataleya? We know her back story, but who’s left to settle the score with?

Perhaps none of that will matter if strong box office predicts a profitable sequel. I know I’d watch. Both movies will be seen and seen again. For now, our winner, Colombiana, is the better-acted, better-produced movie within Luc Besson’s formula — if that matters very much to actionistas. He has extended his creative reach.


About Mark Sanchez

Oregon based media and communications consultant Mark Sanchez is on the fifth or sixth step of his recovery program from his career as a television news reporter. And that’s the way it is. Mark has been an Oregonian since the Reagan administration and shows no signs of leaving. He lives in Portland — a city that is famous for its transit system, its rain, its independent film community and, lately, for the TV series Portlandia, which Mark notes is about half-true, but to protect confidential sources he won’t say which half.
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9 Responses to Colombiana (2011) -vs- Taken (2009)

  1. Marina Shedd says:

    Hola Mark,

    I was more entartained by Cinetopia, a wonderful brand-theater across Big Al’s in Tigard, than I was about Colombiana. If anything, it felt good to take my high heels off after a long day at work and rest my feet on a brand-new sort of bench in front of my soft and spacious seat. You gotta go there. The employee/waiter, thinking that we were deaf, yelled at his boss: “We are getting ready to start. We have five people.” My friend got a beer (because you can eat and drink while you watch the movie). The waiter said it was slow. I gave him a few tips for advertisement purposes and asked him to tell his manager to spell Colombiana right. They spelled it Columbiana. He ran out of the theater and came back to tell me that my wish had been granted and said, in Spanish, “Un millon de gracias.” Now, let me share a secret about the movie: Action! I do not like that sort of action. I prefer drama. Action is loud and magical. I thought the film would take place in Colombia, but they got out of there after showing a neighborhood, perhaps fearing that their make-believe story could turn into real carnage. Cataleya would not have survived that. I get the impression that she is more of a ballet dancer than an acrobat. Pretty, yes, a refined killer, I doubt it.


  2. thanks Mark, for another entertaining read. The kids brought me to Taken; now that I know Luc Besson is behind it, I’ll cheer my daughter up with Columbiana (“Worst movie I’ve ever paid for” she said after seeing Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark last night).

  3. Rodney says:

    Great review, Mark, as usual. I didn’t think there was a film to knock Taken off its perch as my all-time favourite action/revenge/thriller. I saw the trailer to Columiana a while back, and have to say, it does look awesome. I’ll definitely be picking it up on BluRay in the future for a gander!

  4. Nevill Eschen says:

    I must speak up about this movie. With respect for other people’s opinions about it, I thought it was stupid. “Taken” came out soon after the death of star Liam Neeson’s wife, and at that time, he needed all the support the public could give him. So these comments are aimed at everyone else who had a hand in that movie.
    Sometimes a movie calls for a viewer to suspend disbelief; that was needed but not achievable here. The movie’s mom (main character Bryan Mills’ ex-wife) allows their lovely teenage daughter to go on a trip, with just her friend, following a favorite band around Europe. Now, movie mom looks pretty self-indulgent, but surely she has the mental breadth to know what goes on with rock-band members, their roadies and fans. Oh, sure, a mom is going to give the child the go-ahead to just go sleep around on the road in Europe. It was a non sequitur, just seeing that situation unfold makes a viewer think, “What in the world?! What mom…” And remember, the mom is the more attentive of the girl’s parents; it was the dad who’d damaged the relationship by being so absent.
    Then the girl gets this beautiful, show-quality horse for her birthday or graduation. (Movie mom has re-married; her husband is rich, rich, rich.) This is just as the girl is about to go away for several weeks. Who’s going to take care of this horse? I can buy it that these people are pampered and get whatever they want, and they can hire someone to feed, care for and ride the horse, but likely people living at that level are pretty anal about perfection in their lives, and means taking responsibility, yet this girl is not responsible at all for the horse. Even very wealthy horse-owners are generally involved in the horse’s care. Again, the viewer thinks, “What?! That wouldn’t happen.”
    The girls go missing. Where are the friend’s parents? Don’t they care their daughter has disappeared? There’s no contact with Liam Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, who would be the perfect person to know in a case like this. But they’re not involved in the search at all. They don’t even enter the picture when their daughter turns up dead. Could that happen?
    Mills is ready to sacrifice the friend to save his daughter. Understandably, his daughter is his first priority, but the friend is completely written off. He tells the villains who’ve kidnapped the girls, “If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you….” (This quote is lifted from the Smackdown review.) That’s compassion, what a guy. No one seems slightly concerned about the friend.
    I did like that Mills yelled into the phone something to the effect of “Focus, Kimmy! Focus!” when guiding her as the villains searched for her. That was a believable reaction.
    Yet a friend of mine who loves movies and is very knowledgeable about them recommended it to another friend and actually watched it again. I just don’t see the appeal of this movie with so many holes in it.
    Thank you, I’ve been meaning to vent about it since I saw it.

    • Rodney says:

      I was going to write something about how Taken is one of my favourite action films of all time, but now I don’t feel comfortable doing so. I too found the lack of interest or care for the “best friend” character a little worrying, until I figured that it wasn’t the most important part of the story. This is a film about Bryan Mills and his relationship (fractured as it is) with his daughter and wife. The decision to make Bryan’s wife (played by the always excellent Famke Janssen) as uppity as she was was simply cinematic shorthand to get us on his side, instead of leaving any ambiguity. The frantic, angry nature of Mills’ mission to get his daughter back, and the methodical approach he takes to hunt her down through various channels, needs somebody who’s as rock hard emotionally as Mills is in this film.He can’t have any baggage, at least, not baggage which can be used against him by the enemy. And as the audience, we need to completely side with him 100%, even if he may have been a “bad father” or “bad husband” at some stage previously. That’s not important. The hunt is what’s important. The horse isn’t. Anything outside the mission is stripped away, and I think that makes for a much leaner, meaner film.

      Sorry you didn’t find Taken as enthralling as the many people who did, Nevill. Personally, I thought it was excellent.


  5. Good Smackdown! Although I haven’t seen COLOMBIANA yet, I will definitely do so soon. Lookin’ forward to the carnage…

    • Mark Sanchez says:

      Bob.. There will be blood.
      Wait a sec: I wrote about that one already.

    • Marina Shedd says:

      I can’t wait to see it. You’ll be hearing from me 🙂

  6. Bryce Zabel says:

    I felt that the action and motivation in Taken was more immediate and warranted. Bryan Mills is a father who’s going to rescue his daughter and nobody better get in his way. But Cataleya decides to dedicate her life to killing people, most of which had nothing to do with the death of her parents. Mills is out to save someone. Cataleya is out to murder on the mistaken assumption that murder for murder equals redemption, but it never does. Plus, Mills seemed to be using reasonable skills gains as a CIA agent while she seems to have been the understudy for Catwoman. At least that’s how I saw ’em!

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