Dad on a Rampage: "Taken"

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Ladies, when vacationing in Paris this summer, there are a few basic things one ought to know in order to prevent any mishaps from occurring.

Tip one: After exiting the plane, proceed directly to the next available cab at your disposal. Try not to stop, or take pictures, or flirt with charming strangers that you meet along the way.

Tip two: If you must flirt, try not to let said charming strangers know that you’re travelling the countryside by your lonesome.

And tip three: Under no circumstances, whatsoever, should you allow said charming strangers to follow you to your fancy new digs in the city and get your apartment number. I know it’s tempting, but trust me. It could potentially lead to something dangerous.

Of course, if your dad happens to be a former CIA operative cooling his heels back in Los Angeles, none of these rules really apply to you. In the event that you break them, get abducted, and get sold into an international sex ring that specializes in addicting its girls to heroin before sending them out to work the streets, you’re still okay. Your dad will be around to save you.

Or so one hopes, anyway.

Liam Neeson, he of the flinty glares and stoic disposition, proves hell hath no fury like a father scorned in the new action thriller, “Taken.”

Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a retired CIA man whose life has simmered down considerably since his days as a self-described “preventer.” By the time we catch up with Mr. Mills, he’s already deeply entrenched in the daily grind of normal life. He gets up, pulls the occasional concert security detail, and paces his apartment, waiting anxiously for his 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) to return his phone calls.

The downside of being a jet-setting secret service man for so many years is that he missed out on her childhood. Now hoping to make up for lost time, he’s moved to Los Angeles, where she currently resides with her mother (a frosty Famke Janssen) and rich stepfather (Xander Berkeley).

But alas, for all his good intentions, nothing seems to give. He buys her a spanking new karaoke set (the kind she probably wanted back when she was 10), and her new dad buys her a pony. He gets her lessons with an exclusive vocal coach, and she announces that she’s about to go on all-expenses paid trip around Europe, starting in grand ole Paris.

Talk about tough breaks. But unbeknownst to Mills, his luck is about to change.

When Kim and a friend (Katie Cassidy) are taken captive in Paris by a group of Albanian sex ring wranglers, it falls on Mills to track down their whereabouts. He may not be able to buy his little girl a pony, but he sure can kick the snot out of any eastern European punks who get in his way.

Because it’s February, it may be easy to mistake “Taken” for another of those freezer-burned throwaways typical of Hollywood around this time. Big mistake. While it isn’t exactly high art, “Taken” is a far better film than the company it keeps.

Foremost, “Taken” seems to master the basic recipe for action movie success, engaging with just the right amount of pulp to offset its other, more brutal tones. And after all, what’s a good action movie without a side of pulp?

Director Pierre Morel (“District B13”) wields a swift hand over the film’s action sequences. The scenes are smartly staged and cleaned edited – enviable attributes in today’s action world.

“Taken” was filmed largely on French soil, and this has a trickle-down effect on the film at large. Producer Luc Besson helps endow “Taken” with the elements of cinema du look – a school of cinema thought to emerge in France in the 1980s that placed emphasis on glossy spectacles over storytelling. In America, we’d call that the Michael Bay school of thought.

Besson is an avowed follower of cinema du look. His past credits include “Subway” (that’s the high end part) and the “Transporter” series (the decidedly low end). Somewhere, actor Jason Statham is shaking his fists in the air, angry at being left out of this most recent endeavor.

Along with Robert Mark Kamen, Besson helped write the script for “Taken.” While occasionally guilty of a few missteps, such as moralizing – for instance, Kim, virtuous and true, is dealt a kind fate in the sex ring while her skanky pal winds up in the worst of circumstances – the script is largely by-the-numbers. A few taut scenes, such as the abduction of the girls, excel based on the merits of the film’s cast.

However, once you get a look at Kim’s intended, ah, beau – a rotund, bulbous-headed sheik with a taste for virginal young beauties – you get the sense that the script is not without a sense of humor.

Above and away, Neeson is the star of the show. Whether posing as a corrupt cop haggling with gangsters over his price cut, or as a John haggling with a hooker over the services included in her fee, his steely intensity never wavers. He fights, he snarls, he shoots up innocent civilians to get his point across in the middle of heated confrontations; he’s Dirty Harry Callahan with a larger mission to see through.

As he anticipates the moves of his enemies and coolly tortures those he gets in his clutches, one thing seems clear. If this is what retired CIA operatives are capable of, one shudders to think what Mr. Mills was like in the prime of his career.

-Shayna M.