Not Without My Daughter

The Taken series has allowed Liam Neeson to launch a new career playing frighteningly capable, quietly seething old men who do whatever they must to protect their loved ones. But Neeson’s hardly the first actor to play a mother, father, uncle, aunt, or family friend taking extraordinary measures to extract children (both little and full-grown) from dangerous situations. The “parents fighting to rescue their kids” picture is practically a genre unto itself, and one that’s intersected over the decades with everything from Westerns to thrillers to cartoons.

1. Taken (2008)

The modern standard for the dad-on-a-mission movie, the first of the three Takens introduces Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA agent who learns that his daughter has been abducted by human traffickers in Paris, and promptly applies his “very particular set of skills” to getting her back and punishing the bad guys. Like a lot of these kinds of movies, Taken plays directly on the emotions of the parents in the audience in two ways: first hitting on their fears that their kids are going to be corrupted, then giving them the satisfaction of seeing an aging dude kick the asses of anyone who underestimates him. [Noel Murray]

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2. Not Without My Daughter (1991)

One of the most controversial (and ultimately influential) movies of the early ’90s, this lurid potboiler stars Sally Field as a wife and mother who travels with her Iranian husband to his home country, only to find when she arrives that she no longer has any rights. The rest of the film shows the hero pretending to obey her husband while working behind the scenes to escape, which is a plan complicated by her unwillingness to leave without… well, check the title. Although adapted from a memoir, Not Without My Daughter was rightly slammed by critics for its depiction of Iranians as devious fanatics. Yet while it didn’t do well at the box office, it had a strong second life on home video and TV, and provided a blueprint for countless made-for-cable “child in peril” dramas to come. [Noel Murray]

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3. Missing (1982)

Based on the true story of journalist Charles Horman—who disappeared while covering the 1973 coup that installed Chilean general Augusto Pinochet—Missing stars Jack Lemmon as Charles’ father, a patriotic American whose values are shaken when he discovers that his own government is stonewalling his search for his son. Director Costa-Gavras spent the previous decade criticizing torture, covert action, and dictatorial regimes in movies like Z, The Confession, and State Of Siege, and in Missing he and screenwriter Donald Stewart delivered a direct challenge to the United States, accusing its officials of hiding the truth about Horman because they didn’t want anyone to find out about the extent of the U.S. involvement in the coup. The movie is the most powerful kind of “angry dad” story, where one man’s indignation leads him to re-evaluate his past disagreements with his son and to rethink his beliefs. [Noel Murray]

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4. Hardcore (1979)

Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader wrote and directed this similarly seedy drama, which stars George C. Scott as a straitlaced Midwesterner looking for his missing teenage daughter in the peep-show booths and grubby offices of the Southern California porn business. Schrader—who grew up in conservative religious family—uses Hardcore both to empathize with and to criticize Scott’s character, showing how unprepared the man is even for his kid having premarital sex, let alone her making movies with men nicknamed “Jism Jim” and “Big Dick Blaque.” Initially, Hardcore takes the form of an ambiguity-laced mystery, asking whether this child is worse off with smut-peddlers or with her repressed dad. But the film also plays to the viewer’s own prurient interest and moral code, following a slippery slope that leads from tame stag films to BDSM to “snuff”—until even the libertines in the audience start to identify with the hero’s quest. [Noel Murray]

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5. Finding Nemo (2003)

Pixar’s 2003 Oscar-winner follows a fish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) searching for his only son, who’s caught by divers and placed in a dentist’s aquarium. With Pixar’s signature attention to its characters, director Andrew Stanton brings real pathos and stakes to a classic “overprotective parent” story, making it less about Nemo’s desire to be free and more about Marlin’s need to loosen his grip on his child (and, by proxy, heal from the tragedy that left him a widower). The fantastic visuals never overwhelm the basic story of a father and son’s journey to reunite, providing both Marlin and Nemo an eye-opening look at an oceanic world that can be dangerous, but always worth experiencing. [Kevin Johnson]

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6. Commando (1985)

Few films in the Schwarzenegger oeuvre have a terribly complicated storyline, but the simplest might be Commando. Former South American dictator Dan Hedaya needs the help of a retired Delta Force colonel (Schwarzenegger, whose character has the completely natural-sounding name John Matrix) to carry out a political assassination. To force Matrix to take the assignment, Hedaya kidnaps his daughter (Alyssa Milano), and in a plot recognizable from every late-’80s video game up to and including Super Mario Brothers, Matrix works his way through a series of henchmen, fights the boss, wins, and saves his princess. [Mike Vago]

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7. Uncommon Valor (1983)

One of the spate of reactionary wish-fulfillment ’80s action movies predicated on the idea that our Vietnam POWs were being held as slave laborers (see also 1984’s Missing In Action and 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part 2), Uncommon Valor at least boasts Gene Hackman as a steely everyman determined to rescue his long-missing soldier son. Unfortunately, the film’s politics are as sophisticated as a WWII B-picture and equally clichéd, as Hackman assembles a rag-tag commando team of guys with names like Charts, Sailor, and Blaster for the mission. Through all the clichés and the film’s typically violent resolution to the MIA issue, Hackman, as ever, manages to make his quest for his son improbably human. [Dennis Perkins]

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8. Clean, Shaven (1993)

Like all the hero parents on this list, the protagonist of Lodge Kerrigan’s debut overcomes all manner of obstacles as he strikes a ragged path across an unnamed city to rescue his young daughter—except that Peter Winter (a haunting, raw Peter Greene) is schizophrenic, recently released from an institution, and prone to horrifying visual and auditory hallucinations. An unsympathetic cop thinks Winter is a child murderer, and Kerrigan’s cagy, assured direction plays on our sympathies as well, with Winter’s dream reunion with his daughter (living with an adoptive family) the one scrap of clarity he clings to in his disturbing, self-destructive odyssey. In its own unrelentingly bleak manner, the film’s depiction of Winter’s blind devotion is as heartbreaking as it is unnerving. [Dennis Perkins]

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9. Ransom (1996)

In Ransom, Mel Gibson plays an airline mogul named Tom Mullen, whose life of wealth and leisure is interrupted when kidnappers take his young son and demand $2 million for his return. Mullen initially agrees to pay, but when the handoff fails, he decides to turn the ransom money into a bounty on the kidnappers. It sort of works, in the sense that he gets his son back and most of the kidnappers die, but the gambit also nearly gets both father and son killed. Almost 20 years later, Gibson’s memorably apoplectic plea has since become a staple for aspiring improv performers. [Drew Toal]

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10. Air Force One (1997)

The president is expected to make every decision as the leader of the country first and foremost, but things are rarely that simple in real life or in fiction. In Air Force One, Russian terrorist Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) seizes the aircraft of President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) in an effort to force the release of a despotic general. Marshall’s earlier promise that his administration will not negotiate with terrorists is challenged by the fact that his wife and daughter are among the plane’s hostages. Faced with a gun to his daughter’s head, Marshall acquiesces to Korshunov’s demands—at least until he’s able to break free and recapture Air Force One. When Marshall snarls “Get off my plane” into Korshunov’s face and hurls him to his death, that’s not just a president dispatching an enemy combatant—that’s justice for the man who dared to threaten his little girl. [Les Chappell]

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11. John Q (2002)

Although John Q is constructed from the same components as many of the films on this list—a child in jeopardy, a desperate parent, and a hostage situation—it rearranges them in a slightly different way. This time it’s the fraught father doing the hostage-taking as Denzel Washington’s down-on-his-luck John Quincy Archibald holds an emergency room at gunpoint to demand treatment for his sick son. Part emotionally manipulative healthcare drama, part cheesy thriller, the film charts the extreme measures Archibald will take after learning it will cost an insurmountable $75,000 to get his young son on the heart-transplant list. While plenty of on-screen parents claim they would sacrifice anything for their children, John Q pushes that to a limit that almost seems plausible. [Caroline Siede]

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12. Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners is the sort of kidnapped-child potboiler that demands to know how far parents will go for their missing kids. Would you kidnap a man with the IQ of a 10-year-old? Would you brutally torture him? Would you? Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard play the fathers of the kidnapped girls, while Paul Dano dons clichéd rapist-in-a-van glasses and becomes the fathers’ torture victim after he’s suspected and released by the police. Jackman’s character goes the vigilante route in the sort of “Screw the police, I’ll do it myself!” acts so common to these films. Unfortunately, this mainly involves being moody in the rain and torturing a man who clearly doesn’t understand what’s happening to him but very much feels every punch to the face, hammer to the hand, and drop of scalding water. Howard’s more hesitant character acts as audience surrogate, his participation in the torture clearly weighing on his soul. By the end, there’s not really any one left to root for except the kidnapped girls. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

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13-14. Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), Flightplan (2005)

In Bunny Lake Is Missing—directed by suspense master Otto Preminger—American transplant Ann Lake (Carol Lynley, never better) goes to pick her daughter up from her first day at her new London school, but no one has a record of the child ever existing. Since the audience has never seen Bunny Lake, viewers are left to wonder: Is the girl a figment of Lake’s imagination, or is her maternal terror over her abducted child real? Her search for her daughter results in a satisfying, creepy climax—unlike Flightplan, which reused the idea 40 years later on an airplane. Removing the ambiguity right away, the film shows Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) boarding the plane with her daughter, Julia, who helpfully traces a heart in a window so that viewers know she actually exists. Julia disappears on the plane, but it just so happens that Kyle designed it. After getting the runaround from the plane’s staff, Kyle goes into full Schwarzenegger mode, tearing out circuitry and slinking through baggage holds to search for her daughter. Gripping psychological drama or mommy action movie? In this missing-daughter category, it’s not even a contest. [Gwen Ihnat]

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15. The Forgotten (2004)

Taking the “Is she crazy?” angle into otherworldly territory, The Forgotten follows a similar path as Bunny Lake and Flightplan, at least initially: Telly Paretta (Julianne Moore) is looking for her “missing” son, Sam, but her husband and shrink explain Paretta made up the son’s story to cope with a miscarriage. Paretta refuses to give up, and she eventually enlists the help of Ash (Dominic West), who she believes has lost a child too. As they race against time and seemingly insurmountable forces, The Forgotten makes the case that a mother’s love for and bond to her child is unbreakable. [Becca James]

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16. Gorgo (1961)

Looked at one way, Gorgo is the story of a mother who heroically crosses an ocean to save her kidnapped child, maternal love trumping impossible odds to facilitate a touching family reunion. So what if the mother in question just happens to be a 200-foot prehistoric creature, and her child a comparatively tiny 65-foot beast? Essentially the U.K.’s answer to Japan’s massively profitable Godzilla series, this MST3K favorite technically offers a few human rooting interests: the dashing treasure hunters that end up discovering the titular animal on an island and hauling it back to London, incurring the wrath of its ginormous mother. But for parents in the audience—or really, just anyone with more sympathy for zoo attractions than zookeepers—the true hero of this monster movie will be obvious. Given Gorgo’s unconventionally “happy” ending, the filmmakers evidently agreed. [A.A. Dowd]

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17. The Searchers (1956)

In John Ford’s famous Western, John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran trying to find his nieces, who were kidnapped by the Comanches that murdered his brother and sister-in-law. Devastated, Edwards goes on a years-long search that takes him from Texas to Canada—but it’s unclear whether he’s doing it to save his nieces or to take revenge on a people he despises. Wayne gets the chance to show more heart than usual, playing a man haunted by loss and unable to follow anything but his soldier’s instincts. They take him on a journey that spans years and hundreds of miles—it’s hard to argue anyone else on this list searches harder for lost family members. [Gwen Ihnat]

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18-plus. Most Lifetime movies

Lifetime movies are engineered to prey on suburban anxieties while offering an illicit thrill. The result is a subgenre of “heroic mom saves kidnapped child” TV movies, like When Andrew Came Home (2000), the descriptively titled My Baby Is Missing (2007), and Taken From Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story (2011), starring Empire’s Taraji P. Henson (who sells the hell out of the role, by the way). Parsing it out further, there’s also a smattering of “heroic dad” movies (A Father For Brittany), “evil surrogate/adoption agency” movies (The Surrogacy Trap, Baby Sellers, Baby For Sale), and even a couple where a child solves her own kidnapping (Abducted: The Carlina White Story). [Katie Rife]