Father Knows Best

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There's a weird blend of cold-blooded violence and mawkish sentimentality that French action-movie mogul Luc Besson got right exactly once, in 1994's The Professional (or Lon, as it was known in its racier international edit). There's something ecstatically goofy about Jean Reno's childlike, plant-loving hitman protecting pubescent Natalie Portman from Gary Oldman's scenery-gnawing ogre. The film remains compulsively watchable every time it turns up on cable, and Bresson has been striving and failing to recapture its elusive magic ever since.

Taken, co-written and produced by Besson but directed by his District B13 protege Pierre Morel, cribs a ton from The Professional's playbook. Liam Neeson lends an almost inappropriate amount of gravitas to the role of ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills, a legendary "problem preventer" who can still pound beers and reminisce about Beirut with his old wartime buddies. He's since pulled up stakes and moved to California so he can play overprotective dad to his estranged teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace).

Bryan's the kind of insufferably boring father who's incapable of uttering a sentence that doesn't somehow revolve around his baby girl. He's so obnoxiously doting and affectionate, you can't help wish the kid would just take a vacation to Europe with one of her dippy friends and get herself kidnapped by a bunch of sleazy Albanian sex traffickers already.

Fortunately, that's exactly what happens.

Much to Bryan's dismay--but with the encouragement of his bitch-on-wheels ex-wife (Famke Jannsen, completely wasted here)--Kim sets off for a summer devoted to following U2 from concert to concert, all over Europe. (I didn't know teenagers even liked U2 anymore. Is this a period piece?) Bryan frets about being the only man who understands "what the world is really like," and so he naturally finds himself on the telephone with Kim while she's in the process of being abducted by those nasty Albanians.

One of the kidnappers is foolish enough to pick up her cell phone, and Neeson's eyes instantly narrow into something far scarier than a film so silly deserves. In what will presumably become a monologue quoted incessantly by sad, lonely boys in barrooms all across our great land, Liam explains: "I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you ... and I will kill you."

And with that speech, this dopey, maudlin movie turns totally awesome.

Taken

B-

Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace

Director: Pierre Morel

Opens Fri., Jan. 30

Okay, so Taken is junk. Obviously. It's reactionary father-knows-best-because-he-used-to-murder-people-for-a-living nonsense, implicitly reinforcing all sorts of xenophobic paranoias and insidious patriarchal hierarchies. But it's also absurdly entertaining to watch Neeson cut a bloody swath through Paris leaving countless dead bodies in his wake. With a laser-focused determination and no small shortage of ingenuity, Neeson tortures, maims and wallops most of the Gallic underworld--his appalling actions always justified by sanctimonious fatherly devotion.

This is a lurid, sleazy button-pusher movie, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't work like gangbusters on a base, Cro-Magnon level. These days Neeson too often plays the kindly mentor figure who gets killed in the first half-hour. It's almost disconcerting to see him stick around for an entire flick. It also helps that Morel knows his way around an action sequence, cutting fast but with admirable clarity-- positioning his larger-than-life star as a giant in a world of shrimps.

Taken is bullying, crude and wrongheaded. It's awfully fun.

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