Butt-kicking bloodhound reels us in

It's not just the exhilarating fights and chases: Taut writing, savvy stagecraft and Neeson's fine grit help feed the rush in ‘Taken.'

01/30/2009 12:00 AM

01/29/2009 1:17 PM

Three self-evident truths emerge from “Taken,” the lean and brutal thriller about why one should never kidnap a retired secret agent's daughter.

Liam Neeson could have had a hell of a career as an action star, had he been willing to sell out.

Second, when it comes to action pictures, there are movies that come out under the aegis of Luc Besson (“The Professional,” “La Femme Nikita,” “The Transporter”), and there's everybody else.

And if we're letting CIA agents this ruthless and tough “retire,” government pensions are entirely too generous.

“Taken” is about a divorced, doting dad who has quit his job with “The Agency” to be closer to his teenage daughter (Maggie Grace). Dad doesn't just dote. He sticks his nose right in Miss Kim's business.

“Mom said your job made you paranoid,” she sniffs.

“My job made me aware,” he corrects.

Against his better judgment, he lets the kid, whose mom (Famke Janssen) has remarried and married money, take off for Paris. Sure enough, bad things happen to naive teenage girls abroad.

The kidnapping itself is a drum-tight piece of writing and a brilliant bit of stagecraft. She's on the phone with Dad. Men come into another room and grab her friend. He has just enough time to prepare her, to instruct her on the basics – “Focus,” “Yell out descriptions of the men” and hold the phone where he can pick up their voices.

The exclamation point to the scene is Neeson, in a father's righteous, measured fury, telling the kidnappers about his “very particular skills,” and how they should let her go and just walk away. They don't. (They never do.) Bad move.

Cinematographer-turned-director Pierre Morel, working from a Besson story (with the master looking over his shoulder during editing, no doubt) transforms the big, burly Irishman into a karate-chopping, derriere-kicking bloodhound, calling on old friends, using his “particular skills” to hunt down the kid and those who napped her. Neeson barrels through the screen like a muscle car bouncing anything French, Albanian, American or Arabic out of his way.

The film's brevity means it only has time to establish the man's affection for his child and his competence. The opening scenes show him bickering with the ex and then joining some ex-colleagues on a pop star security detail and foiling a stalker.

Some moments play as seriously worn out. And as the story resolves itself, a discomfiting French xenophobia and a little CIA torture enters the picture, which won't be to every taste.

But the chases, those fights – what a rush! Besson didn't reinvent the action film. Still, as “Taken” re-iterates, Besson's espresso-jag thrillers are all the caffeine an action fan needs until the summer thrill rides arrive.

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