Three self-evident truths emerge from Taken, the lean and brutal thriller about why one should never kidnap a retired secret agent's daughter.
One: Liam Neeson could have had a helluva career as an action star, had he been willing to sell out.
Two: When it comes to action pictures, there are movies that come out under the aegis of Luc Besson (The Professional, La Femme Nikita, The Transporter), and there's everybody else.
And three: If we're letting CIA agents this ruthless and tough “retire,” then plainly, government pensions are entirely too generous.
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Taken is about a divorced, doting dad who has quit his job with “The Agency” to be closer to his teenage daughter (Maggie Grace, formerly of Lost but almost unrecognizable with dark hair). Dad doesn't just dote. He sticks his nose right in Miss Kim's business.
“Mom said your job made you paranoid,” she sniffs.
“My job made me aware,” he corrects.
Against his better judgment, he lets the kid, whose mom (Famke Janssen) has remarried into money, take off for Paris. Sure enough, bad things happen to naive teenage girls abroad.
The kidnapping itself is a drum-tight piece of writing and a brilliant bit of stagecraft. She's on the phone with Dad. Men come into another room and grab her friend. He has just enough time to prepare her, to instruct her on the basics: “Focus,” “Yell out descriptions of the men,” and hold the phone where Dad can pick up their voices.
The exclamation point to the scene is Neeson, in a father's righteous, measured fury, telling the kidnappers that he has “a very particular set of skills,” and that they should let her go and just walk away. They don't. (They never do.) Bad move.
Cinematographer-turned-director Pierre Morel, working from a story by Besson (with the master looking over his shoulder during editing, no doubt) transforms the big Irishman into a karate-chopping, derriere-kicking bloodhound, calling on old friends, using that particular set of skills to hunt down the kid and those who kidnapped her. Neeson barrels through the screen like a muscle car, bouncing anything French, Albanian, American or Arabic out of his way.
The film is only 91 e_SDHpminutes, so they have time only to establish the man's affection for his child and his competence. The opening scenes show him bickering with the ex and then joining some ex-colleagues on a pop-star security detail and foiling a stalker.
Some moments play as seriously worn out. And as the story resolves itself, a discomfiting French xenophobia and a little CIA torture enters the picture, which won't be to every taste.
But the chases, those fights — what a rush! Besson didn't reinvent the action film. Still, as Taken reiterates, Besson's espresso-jag thrillers are all the caffeine an action fan needs until the summer thrill rides arrive.