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Image: Taken
Stephanie Branchu  /  AP
Liam Neeson stars as a former CIA tough guy who must rescue his daughter from a sex-slavery operation in "Taken."
By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/27/2009 4:34:19 PM ET 2009-01-27T21:34:19

If Paul Schrader had cast Charles Bronson instead of George C. Scott in the sordid ’70s drama “Hardcore,” about a man searching for his runaway daughter in the porn world, the result might have resembled “Taken,” which stars Liam Neeson as a former CIA tough guy who smashes a lot of Parisian skulls to rescue his daughter from a sex-slavery operation.

Neeson’s Bryan Mills has retired from the spy biz and settled in Los Angeles to be close to his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, whose idea of playing a 17-year-old is to run goofily and generally gad about like an excited half-wit), whom he neglected during his years overseas “preventing problems.”

His ex Lenore (Famke Janssen) wants his permission to let Kim spend the summer in Paris, and she bitterly poo-poos his fatherly concerns, especially when he later learns that Kim’s real plans are to spend the summer following the U2 tour all over Europe. (Note to the filmmakers: Seventeen-year-old girls might follow bands around, but aging dad-rockers U2 probably wouldn’t be one of them.)

Within hours of arriving in the City of Lights, Kim and her ditzy friend are targeted by a bunch of Albanian goons who kidnap them. Kim happens to be on the phone with Bryan at the time, which provides him (and his CIA pals) enough information to start locating her. Time is of the essence, however, because after 96 hours, Kim will be so far into the sex-slave underground that they’ll never find her again.

So it’s off to Europe for Bryan, and in no time, he’s punching, kicking and shooting his way through friend and foe alike, picking off corrupt cops, Eastern European pimps, oily girl-auctioneers and bloated Saudi oil sheiks with a taste for young virgins.

Luc Besson, the modern master of Eurotrash action, co-wrote the script with Robert Mark Kamen, and the action never lags. Director Pierre Morel (“District B-13”) keeps things moving, and he makes Neeson into a credible, driven action star.

The script also tosses in some “24”-lite torture sequences that will no doubt gladden the heart of any Bushies who miss the glory days of Gitmo. Add to that the film’s “save the white girl from the foreign infidels” plotline — a staple of American cinema going back to the bad old days of “Birth of a Nation” — and there’s a queasily reactionary feel to the movie that detracts from its more incitement-to-riot qualities.

Still, if you’re willing to hold your nose to the political subtext of “Taken,” it’s one rousing moment after another. And it’s the kind of film that men of a certain age and temperament will particularly love since the whole movie is all about Neeson not only being the Superfather protector (Lenore’s second husband is rich, but soft) but also about him being right about everything. “Shut up, ladies,” the movie tells us. “Papa knows best. And his gun never runs out of bullets.”

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