Swift, sure and mildly sadistic, the thriller Taken is a lot like its protagonist, Bryan Mills. Under normal circumstances -- that is, in real life -- you'd say the retired CIA agent was paranoid about the safety of his seventeen-year-old daughter. But because he exists in a fictional film universe where worst fears come true, the character portrayed by Liam Neeson has ample reason to be overprotective.
No sooner do Kim (Maggie Grace) and her girlfriend arrive in Paris from Los Angeles on vacation then Albanian gangsters abduct them. A former colleague estimates that Mills has ninety-six hours to locate his child before she's hooked on drugs, deflowered and never seen or heard from again, at least in polite society.
A stickler for details and the necessity of focus, he has the ideal training and disposition to carry out this beat-the-clock rescue mission. And given the fact he wasn't around much during her childhood -- hence the failure of his marriage to her mother Lenore (Famke Janssen) -- and that he's been supplanted by her rich step-father, it's almost as if Bryan is relieved to play a vital role in her life. He welcomes the chance to prove his parental utility. If everyone in America's intelligence services were as efficient and good at their jobs, Osama Bin Laden would have been captured years ago.
So too, without being burdened by complexity (or originality, for that matter), Taken knows what it needs to do, is capable of doing it, and does it well. Although its hero may be motivated by a smidgeon of regret in addition to normal fatherly affection, the movie, like Mills, exhibits no guilt whatsoever for the brutal tactics it adopts. Without certainty, neither the mission nor the movie would succeed, and the latter can be admired as a precise, efficient, and single-minded genre picture.
Producer and co-writer Luc Besson, along with director Pierre Morel and script collaborator Robert Mark Kamen, chose not to clutter up the scenario with any extraneous detail. In the first reel, Bryan is established as both a doting father, who cut short his career so he could be near his daughter in L.A., and as a meticulous operative with the quick reflexes to handle all threats. As Taken shifts into action gear, Besson and company also include dabs of mordant gallows humor that underscore its hawkish outlook -- the reactionary worldview that typically enables action-thrillers to seize hold of the popular imagination.
Though we don't learn exactly what he did in the name of Uncle Sam, all that time away from his family pays off. As he warns his daughter's abductors in the movie's signature speech, Mills acquired a particular set of skills and the ability to exploit any kind of tool and method for besting his enemies. Arriving in Paris, he goes to the apartment where the girls were snatched and quickly gathers evidence that leads him back to the airport and the handsome young man who acted as spotter for the Albanians. When that doesn't pan out, he leans on a reluctant old friend, a French spy who now sits behind a desk and doesn't want any trouble.
Further freelance investigation takes him to a construction site where he finds a drugged-out prostitute with Kim's jacket. A motocross-style chase ensues. Next, he poses as a corrupt French security official at a brothel run by the Albanians. He enters armed with gall and a name; after much gun and knife-play, as well as a topical scene involving torture, he emerges with a second name that could lead to Kim's whereabouts. To make the connection he's compelled to hurt someone close to his uncooperative French buddy. Then it's on to a black-tie auction where virginal girls like Kim are sold to the highest bidder.
The ordeal ends on the Seine in a fat Sheik's floating boudoir. The outcome is a foregone conclusion, a self-fulfilling prophecy that is logical without being entirely plausible. Bryan's aim is better than everyone else's and his knack for knowing just what to say and do allows him to emerge virtually unscathed. The action sequences are edited in that furious, au courant manner that makes anything possible. Relatively speaking, however, there's an absence of technical overlay or gimmickry.
Middle-aged fathers need a role model and, as embodied by Neeson, Bryan Mills fits the bill. Lending a combination of dashing worldliness and stern integrity, the physically imposing Irish actor has cross-generational appeal as well. Taken will satisfy younger moviegoers, those supported by the aforementioned father figures, while simultaneously conveying the traditional action-movie idea that violence is necessary to preserve and protect everything we hold dear. Our way of life and system of government wouldn't be possible without red-blooded action heroes in the Rambo mold -- as if other nations and cultures don't frown on enslavement and forced prostitution.
In other words, unless their fathers are American ex-spies, all the other girls kidnapped and coerced into selling their bodies around the world are out of luck. Moreover, if they aren't virgins, their chances of survival go way down. Kim and her mother appreciate what Bryan accomplishes without realizing what it required; they are oblivious to the mayhem. Saved from a life of iniquity and misery, Kim turns her attention to becoming a pop singer. According to Taken, that's what men like Bryan Mills do: they allow the rest of us to pursue our silly little dreams in peace and comfort.
(Released by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation and rated "PG-13" for intense sequences of violence, disturbing thematic material, sexual content, some drug references and language.)