AT THE MOVIES | Taken For a Ride By Neeson

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If CIA agents in general were as skilled as Bryan Mills in particular, bin Laden would have been an American prisoner since late September 2001. Taken shows him as a one-man rescue squad, a master of every skill, a laser-eyed, sharpshooting, pursuit-driving, pocket-picking, impersonating, knife-fighting, torturing, karate-fighting killing machine who can cleverly turn over a petrol tank with one pass in his car and strategically ignite it with another.

We meet Mills (Liam Neeson) in sort of retirement in Los Angeles, grilling steaks with old CIA buddies and yearning to spend more time with his 17-year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace). Kim now lives with her mom, Mills ex-wife (Famke Janssen), and her effortlessly mega-rich husband (Xander Berkeley), whose idea of a birthday present is giving Kim, not a pony, but what looks like a thoroughbred.
Mills has seen action in Afghanistan and apparently everywhere else, and knows its a dangerous world for a naive teenage girl. He is against Kim spending the summer in Paris with her girlfriend, even though cousins will apparently chaperone. Hes right. Kim and her pal succeed in getting themselves kidnapped the afternoon of the same day they get off the plane, although Kim has time for one terrified phone call to Dad before shes taken.

Now listen to this. Using CIA contacts at Langley, Mills is able to use his garbled tape of their conversation to determine the name of his girls kidnapper (Marko), that he is Albanian, that his ring kidnaps young tourists, drugs them and runs them as prostitutes; the virgins are auctioned off to Arab sheiks and so on. Headquarters also tells Mills he has 96 hours to rescue his daughter before she meets a fate worse than death, followed by death.

With this kind of intelligence, the CIA could be using bin Ladens VISA card in every ATM in Virginia. Its the setup for a completely unbelievable action picture where Mills is given the opportunity to use one element of CIA spy craft after another, read his enemies minds, eavesdrop on their telephones, spy on their meetings and, when necessary, defeat roomfuls of them in armed combat. At one point a former colleague in the Paris police says he has left seven bodies behind. Mills is just getting warmed up. How this man and his daughter could hope to leave France on a commercial flight doesnt speak highly of the French police and the new Pink Panther doesnt open for a week. Oh, why does he have only 96 hours? To provide the movie with a handy deadline, thats why.

Its always a puzzle to review a movie like this. On the one hand, its preposterous. But who expects a Bourne-type city-wrecking operative to be plausible? On the other hand, its very well made. Liam Neeson brings the character a hard-edged, mercilessly focused anger, and director Pierre Morel hurtles through action sequences at a breathless velocity. If Kim is an empty-headed twit, well, shes off-screen most of the time, and the villains are walking showcases for testosterone gone bad. The only tiny glitch is that if one chase scene doesnt use the same ramp down to a construction site that the opening of Quantum of Solace did, it sure looks like it does.

The film reopens a question Ive had. A lot of movies involve secret clubs or covens of rich white men who meet for the purposes of despoiling innocent women in despicable perversity. The men are usually dressed in elegant formal wear, smoke cigars and have champagne poured for them by discreet servants. Do such clubs actually exist? Since every member would be blackmailable, how can they survive? If you lost everything in a Ponzi scheme, would you betray your lodge members? Just wondering.

The movie proves two things: (1) Liam Neeson can bring undeserved credibility to most roles just by playing them, and (2) Luc Besson, the co-writer, whose action assembly line produced this film, turns out high-quality trash, and sometimes much better (The Fifth Element, Taxi, The Transporter, La Femme Nikita, even The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). The bottom line is, if you cant wait for the next Bourne thriller, well, you dont have to. I can easily wait, but Truth in Reviewing compels me to confess that if the movie I was describing in the first paragraph sounded as if youd like this, you probably will.

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