At age 56, Liam Neeson still looks like a formidable slab of muscle looped over steel. In the new action-thriller Taken, Neeson could probably beat his adversaries into submission with his vast stony forehead, but unless I misremember, he doesn’t use that particular lethal weapon. He kicks, punches, chops, slashes, shoots, and slams more than one face into more than one wall or door. We almost feel sorry for the poor Armenian scum who have unwisely chosen to kidnap Neeson’s daughter to sell her as a sex slave. They’re well-armed and well-connected, but they’re up against all six feet and four inches of Liam Neeson in all his righteous wrath. It doesn’t seem fair, really.

Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, used to work for the government as a “preventer” of “bad things.” He has retired in order to spend more time with wide-eyed teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), though he also has to weather the disapproving scowl of ex-wife Famke Janssen; Bryan probably likes his chances better against the Armenians. Kim and a friend get kidnapped in Paris, and Bryan swings into action. He looms over his ex’s current rich husband (Xander Berkeley) and demands a private flight to France — it’s every ex-husband’s dream moment.

Taken is a standard give-me-back-my-spawn thriller, but as written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen it’s admirably stripped down — less the credits, you’re out of there in under 90 minutes — and it shares Bryan’s unearthly focus. It’s good that the first act shows off Neeson’s warm side — Bryan’s daughter is his only weakness, and he’s blissful when he’s around her. He doesn’t need a big speech about how Kim represents the innocence that he wants to preserve in such a cold, corrupt world — we get that when he looks at her, and also when he frets about every step she proposes to take on her Eurotrip. Neeson has been a sorely underrated actor, a solid and somber presence but, despite appearing in box-office hits, never quite a star. But Taken proves his star quality in a way no film has since Neeson’s early-’90s salad days in Schindler’s List and, yes, Darkman.

Bryan’s odyssey through the slime, with frequent concussive scenes in which various Euro-scum are the bowling pins and Bryan is the bowling ball, is on some level Hardcore meets Die Hard. But there’s undeniable pleasure in watching a man of Neeson’s power and intelligence unleashing both on scruffy anonymous lowlifes. What could be simplistic and cheesy in other hands becomes iconic. Luc Besson has a knack for pure-cinema adrenaline rides (his protege Pierre Morel directed) that do away with anything inessential — that take red meat and boil it down to the bone. Despite its grim emphasis, Taken is not without humor; I particularly enjoyed Bryan’s visit to an old colleague turned Paris police desk jockey, whose oblivious wife serves dinner to the two mutually wary men — the way she chirps “Carrots?” to the brooding Neeson is the funniest offer of food in a movie since Marlon Brando proffered biscuits in The Island of Dr. Moreau.

You may be forgiven for looking askance at Taken, which bounced around global theaters for a while before 20th Century-Fox dumped it into a no-confidence late-January slot. But there is a place for pulp done properly and well; the movie displays little art, but it doesn’t have to. Its furious sense of purpose — get in, find the girl, get out — matches Liam Neeson’s. And, come to think of it, there is a kind of artistry in the sheer craft and intensity on display. But don’t let that stop you.

Explore posts in the same categories: action/adventure, one of the year's best, thriller

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