Neeson as action-hero dad? We're not taken.
'Taken"? You bet. Eurobaddies abduct Liam Neeson's teen daughter, and Neeson, playing a one-man gang called Bryan Mills, moves heaven and earth - OK, he just destroys a lot of property - to get her back. But that title is more about abducted movie plots. The prurient underworld shock of "Hardcore"? Taken. The Parisian pot-boiling of "Frantic"? Taken. The comical seriousness of "The Bodyguard"? Taken. The overall Van Dammage? Taken.
Perhaps Neeson is eager to add his name to the list of men who pummel. And I suppose he has. (Look out, Jason Statham. There's a taller sheriff in town.) Neeson breaks necks, karate-chops men unconscious (that move still works!), and foot-chases speeding cars, but with a depressing lack of style. He's a killing machine whose setting stays locked on "Harrison Ford Is Sleeping."
"Taken" begins in crass manipulation. Bryan quits the CIA to live near his estranged 17-year-old daughter (Maggie Grace) after years of clandestine government missions. He's making up for lost time but can't compete with her stepdad's largesse. Real Dad brings a karaoke set to his little girl's 17th birthday blowout. Stepdad (Xander Berkeley) lavishes her with a horse. And Mom (Famke Janssen, brittle) savors her ex's humiliation. But when Bryan listens via cell as men snatch his vacuous pogo-stick of a child in Paris then springs to action, we get it. Let's see Stepdad top this!
Neeson applies as much professionalism as he can while amassing quite a body count. This only redoubles the ridiculousness. No one has told him he's standing in a toilet. This can be fun, as when Bryan escapes certain death with the help of a steam pipe and a fire extinguisher, or when he accepts the business card of a pop star (the card reads "Sheerah") whose life he saves. But it's not Neeson's talent we're meant to appreciate. It's his fitness and the absurdly lethal ends to which it's put.
This is another unsavory mix of sentimentality and high-octane seediness from the Luc Besson factory. Pierre Morel, a Besson disciple, directed from a script Besson wrote with Robert Mark Kamen, who shared credit with Besson on "The Fifth Element" and two "Transporter" movies. In addition to everything else, "Taken" could also be another installment in that series.
A rotten whiff of pleasure wafts through "Taken." You want to see Bryan on the warpath. But when he's not killing everybody, he's such a pathetic character. The man whose spy buddies unload exposition about how he used to be the baddest of the bad ("Remember that time with Hezbollah!") now anticipates his daughter's calls like someone waiting for a second date. Dude, she's just not that into you.
Of course, being sold into sexual slavery has a way of changing all that. It's easier to think of "Taken" as "Revenge of the Non-Custodial Parent," for it feels guided by the hands of men who've signed their share of child-support checks. This might explain why the ex-wife is so one-dimensionally bilious and the daughter a half-dimension more helpless than that. The movie stops at nothing to make this dad a superhero.
Morel was up to similarly reductive tricks with 2004's French action-thriller "District B13," only to snatch the curtain back on the terrific action sequences to reveal a scathing class critique of the European power structure. For his Hollywood debut, he appears to have been briefed on how American girls sometimes go missing from cruise boats and youth hostels, and how cable-crime shows like Nancy Grace's go wild speculating about what happened. But this time outrage takes a holiday.
A rescue movie turns here into an indecent, cynical fantasy aroused by the spectacle of peddled flesh with girls drugged and in distress. I didn't care whether Bryan saves his daughter (she's a bratty "Hills" clone). But if I'm going to watch anybody track down and demolish her violators, I'd rather have a terminator with a little spunk. Nancy, can you hear me?