Wednesday, February 4, 2009


The new Liam Neeson kidnap thriller "Taken" (*** out of ****) qualifies as both entertaining and predictable. Ostensibly, the message here is parents should think twice before they turn their fun-loving, 17-year old daughters loose in Paris, France, without an escort. "District B-13" director Pierre Morel appropriates many of the clichés and conventions of kidnapping thrillers, but he ramps up the violence marginally for this PG-13 thriller while suspending any vestige of realism. The result is an exciting and suspenseful yarn about a "Rambo" style father who takes names and kicks butt.

Although it doesn't concern ransom demands, "Taken" resembles the 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger kidnap thriller "Commando." However, "Taken" isn't half as good as the Schwarzenegger saga. Mind you, Neeson's sympathetic performance as a doting, never-say-die dad in pursuit of the evildoers who abducted his only daughter keeps things interesting. The villains in the formulaic screenplay by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen, who together wrote both "The Transporter" and "Kiss of the Dragon," are as sleazy as maggots. The problem is no one single actor or character emerges who can match Neeson blow for blow. Big dumb action thrillers need a chief villain that we can genuinely loathe and that the hero can lock horns with in a struggle to the death. "Taken" assembles too many trigger-happy miscreants that Neeson dispatches as easily as ten-pins in a bowling alley.

"Taken" finds former CIA agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson of "Schindler's List") living in Los Angeles so he can be near his estranged daughter Kim (Maggie Grace of TV's "Lost") who lives with her mother, Lenore (Famke Janssen of "GoldenEye"), and Stuart (Xander Berkeley of "Air Force One")her affluent stepfather. Lenore and Bryan were divorced years ago because Bryan's job as a 'preventer' for Langley kept him from spending quality time not only with Kim but also her mother. Lenore has nothing but contempt for Bryan and does her best to keep him at arm's length from Kim. Indeed, Bryan lost his job with 'the Company' because he flew 9-thousand miles to celebrate Kim’s birthday while he was on duty elsewhere in the world.

Morel and his scenarists stress Bryan's deep love for his daughter. They show him pasting Kim’s new photos into a scrapbook that contains pictures from each birthday. Bryan finds himself out-classed by Stuart at Kim's 17th birthday party when he gives her a karaoke player while Stuart gives her a horse. Kim still loves Bryan, but she is growing up and a girl has to do what a girl has to do, especially when her best friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy of "Black Christmas") persuades her to fly with her to Paris to stay with her relatives. Before Kim can accompany Amanda, she has to get Bryan's written authorization, but our hero doesn't like the set-up. He worries about what could happen to them, even though Kim assures him that they will only be touring museums. Reluctantly, Bryan breaks down and signs the form, but he demands that Kim take an international cell phone with his number programmed into it.

No sooner have the girls landed than Amanda gets the 'hots' for a Parisian pretty boy named Peter (Nicolas Giraud of "Second Soufflé") who shares a taxi with them. In this respect, "Taken" recalls the R-rated "Hostel" where sexy girls lured lusty lads into a death trap in Eastern Europe. Peter invites them to a party, but the girls never make it. Peter phones a gang of grimy Albanians that operate a white slavery ring. In other words, they shanghai young girls, pump them full of narcotics, and force them into prostitution. Kim is on the phone with Bryan when the villains invade the apartment where Amanda's relatives live. Unfortunately, Amanda's relatives are gone on a vacation, too. Bryan coaches Kim about what to do even as the thugs come after her and drag her screaming out from under a bed.

Predictably, Lenore is distraught when she learns what has happened. Bryan's CIA buddies provide our hero with a wealth of information about the Albanians. They inform Bryan, however, that he has only 96 hours before he will lose Kim forever. Essentially, Kim will be sold to the highest bidder and be a sex slave until she dies. Bryan has Stuart arrange air passage for him to Paris, and our hero pulls out his black bag of tricks. Bryan contacts an old colleague with French intelligence, Jean-Claude (Olivier Rabourdin of "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc"), but he wants Bryan to leave the country. Bryan warns his old friend that he is prepared to tear down the Eiffel Tower to get his daughter back. Secretly, Jean-Claude assigns a team to shadow Bryan. Eventually, Bryan locates the Albanians and inflicts heavy losses on them, but cannot find Kim. Bryan manages to rescue a girl who may know of Kim's whereabouts. He helps her recover from the drugs that the villains have injected in her, and she gives Bryan a lead.

Ten years ago Harrison Ford would probably have played Liam Neeson's part. Meanwhile, Neeson behaves believably enough to convince us that he is as a savvy as Matt Damon's Jason Bourne and can get into and out of the toughest predicaments imaginable. Bryan shoots, stabs, kills, fights, and tortures the treacherous Albanians until he gets what he wants. Indeed, Neeson resembles an indestructible Steven Seagal hero who can triumph over well-nigh impossible odds. Famke Janssen is relegated to the thankless role of the distraught mother, and Maggie Grace is hopelessly clueless as Kim. The Parisian locales look gritty enough, and our hero has his hands full the whole time, right up to the final showdown on a sheik's yacht.

Despite its paucity of realism and reliance on clichés, "Taken" benefits from Neeson's stalwart performance and Morel's vigorous staging of the action that never loses its momentum throughout its nimble 93 minutes.