Taken -- for a ratings ride

Posted: Thursday, March 05, 2009


20th Century Fox

1 hour, 31 minutes

Continuous violence including shootings, stabbings, torture, electrocution, burning, forced drug addiction, and death by delivery truck on the freeway. Sexual situations including off-screen rape, forced prostitution and kidnapping for the purposes of sexual slavery. All of this can be found this week's "Taken," a dark, violent, depraved and depressing film.

What's it rated? PG-13, so you should feel totally comfortable with your teenagers going to see it. After all, there's only the minimum of foul language.

Liam Neeson is Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA agent who is desperately trying to reconnect with his 17-year old daughter Kim after years on the road and a messy divorce. Dad's kind of square with all his rules and paranoia about safety, but when Kimmy bats her eyes and asks to spend the summer in Paris with one of her girlfriends, our hero reluctantly agrees.

Within minutes of landing in France, Kim and her friend Amanda are forcibly abducted from their apartment and sold into slavery by a bunch of ruthless Turks. Bryan is given only minutes on the phone to gather information, but, hey, he was a spook, so he's got the whole of U.S. Intelligence behind him. He's on a plane to Paris immediately to begin ticking off the above list of violent acts in an exceedingly desperate attempt to rescue his daughter. Will Bryan save her in time, or will she wind up as the plaything of a disgusting Sheik with an appetite for young American girls?

Being that this isn't a particularly imaginative or well-written thriller, it doesn't take a whole lot to guess which.

I don't really fault this film for being low-rent. Despite the presence of a talented actor like Neeson, it gives you exactly what the trailer promises. It's a mediocre action-thriller with substandard writing and just a modicum of tension that builds as you go. It's like the straight-to-video version of Denzel Washington's "Man on Fire."

What I fault is the cynical and somewhat perverse way that this film is being marketed. This movie, despite the laundry list from the first paragraph, has been cleverly edited so as to remove most of the blood, most of the nudity, and most of the language, thus tricking, or conspiring with, depending on your point of view, the MPAA into giving them a "teen-friendly" rating. PG-13 movies make far more money for the studios, are shown wider and to larger audiences, and are able to be advertised far freer than R-rated films.

The content in this "edited" version isn't any less objectionable, however. Sexual slavery is sexual slavery whether we see every bit of flesh or not. Death by electrocution doesn't become less "adult" just because you don't see man's hair catch fire. The studio, which will certainly release the unedited version on DVD with much hype ("THE VERSION YOU COULDN'T SEE IN THEATERS!") is spreading their net as far and wide as possible with no regard to the message they are sending, and the MPAA is complicit. I think the time has come to abolish the ratings system.

The rating system we currently use was voluntarily established by the film industry in 1968 in an effort to stave off federal censoring. It consisted of G, PG, R, and X, which originally was going to be for serious films with really adult content, but soon got relegated to pornos, which gleefully added more X's to try to drum up business.

X gave way to NC-17 in 1990, the thought being that legitimate, though explicit films needed a more palatable rating, but it didn't matter. Theatre chains, taking an easy high road, refused to show NC-17 movies, and now the rating is virtually unseen.

PG-13 was added in 1984 after young audiences were frightened by "Gremlins" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," and parents demanded a middle ground between "Restricted" and "Parental Guidance Suggested."

For a funny and gleefully muckraking expose on the whole system, check out "This Film is Not Yet Rated."

The MPAA started out with a noble goal: give parents information about the movies their kids are watching. It was never perfect, but in recent years it has become increasingly obvious that a film's rating is a major part of it's marketing strategy. It's now become a question of money, not guidance or information. Though the ratings board is supposed to be impartial and anonymous, evidence suggests that they are infiltrated by studio lackeys.

The upshot is that movies can now be released with a safe rating no matter what the content, so long as the filmmakers make the cosmetic changes that only the most casual observer would mistake for actual editing. So if the letter-grade on the poster means nothing, what good is it?

Parents need actual, real, unvarnished information about what their kids are watching. And it's not like it's not out there. One location in particular, a Web site called "Kids in Mind" (www.kidsinmind.com), provides a far more useful service than anything we currently have. In dry, non-ambiguous language, the authors of the site describe every objectionable element in a movie, and assign it a 3-number "rating" based on the amount of material in three categories: violence, sexuality, and language.

Is it quick and concise? No. What it does is require that a parent go through the content described and decide for themselves whether it's appropriate for their child. I realize there are questions of practicality. I realize that some information is better than none. And I realize we have to have some kind of a standard. But what we have now doesn't inform or protect. It makes us all tools, dupes, of the money men at the big studios, and until we come to our collective senses it's not just Liam Neeson's kid that's being taken.

Grade: C-

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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