Liam Neeson, action hero? It's not a persona that suits him.
How the mighty have fallen! Liam Neeson trades his usual gravitas for a Charles Bronson role as the royally ticked-off father of a kidnapped teen in "Taken." After working for the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Bill Condon and Christopher Nolan, Neeson signs on with pulp director Pierre Morel in a thriller where the body count is stratospheric and the IQ is subterranean.
Made with a slick proficiency that could be mistaken for style, the film deals in brain-rattling chases, brawls, torture and gun battles alongside images of sexually enslaved women that teeter on exploitation.
Neeson plays Bryan, a former secret agent whose globetrotting assignments alienated his ex-wife (Famke Janssen, an ice sculpture of grim resentment). His 17-year-old Kim (Maggie Grace) now lives large in a Los Angeles mansion with mom and her millionaire stepfather, and Bryan is an afterthought at her birthday party.
When his little girl is snatched by Albanian sex-slavers on a visit to Paris, Bryan leaps into action. He hits France like Jack Bauer's dad, beating up everyone who can offer a scrap of information.
"Taken" plays by the rules of mindless action flicks. Machine guns never, ever hit their objective. A speeding car that rams a building will burst through the walls unscathed and zoom on without so much as a flat tire. The best way to locate a loose pipe is to handcuff the hero to it.
The villains are swarthy brutes, and the big boss is a wicked sheik, because a run-of-the-mill human trafficker wouldn't be evil enough. The violence turns edgy and disturbing when Neeson gets up close and personal with his adversaries.
Given the paternal nature of his vendetta, Neeson's CIA man is more ferocious than most film spies. He tortures suspects without compunction, and even shoots an innocent woman to force her husband to talk. The film flirts with saying something dark and serious about pursuing justice through unjust means, then quickly chickens out.
Neeson is too committed an actor to mail in his performance, but he's alone. Janssen is a one-dimensional harpy, and Grace, who hasn't been 17 for eight years, conveys Kim's youthful exuberance by squealing. But the film is less about the way actual human beings might respond to frightening crimes -- for that, see "Eastern Promises" -- than about jiggle-cam cinematography and jumpy editing. "Taken" makes you feel like you've had of one of Neeson's pistol whippings.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186