Taken really has no right to be as much fun as it is. A movie with less interest in character development and dialogue than in roundhouse kicks and gunplay, Taken is brutish and loud and slow in parts, but also undeniably entertaining.
The presence of Liam Neeson in the lead role is a bonus, but surprisingly, not really the source of success. Credit goes to Pierre Morel, the director who previously made the gonzo French action movie District B13 and brings the same frenetic, sadistic energy to the manifold action sequences here. The plot takes forever to get going, and suffers throughout from terrible dialogue and ridiculous twists, but when it comes to the action-- which is why you bought the ticket in the first place, of course-- Morel is completely in charge..
But first, there's an interminable half hour or so spent meeting Bryan Mills (Neeson), a former spy now living in Los Angeles in order to be closer to his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who lives with her mom (Famke Janssen) and a rich stepdad who buys her a pony for her 16th birthday. Mills, poor guy, can only afford a karaoke machine. We needlessly watch Mills return briefly to the job to protect a pop star-- and take down an assailant in the process-- and hang out with his old spy buddies, since apparently screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen took the "show, don't tell" method of exposition way, way too seriously.
The plot finally emerges when Kim asks permission to spend the summer in Paris, and Mills, an insanely overprotective father, denies her at first. She then confirms the worst suspicions of every overprotective parent on earth by getting kidnapped, along with her friend Amanda, within minutes of arriving in Paris. After a frantic phone call with Kim that gives a few key clues about the kidnappers, Mills has packed his toolkit of weapons and jetted overseas, preparing to "tear down the EIffel Tower if I have to" in order to find his daughter.
He stops just short of that, but destroys any number of cars, construction sites, and lives as he races through the seedy underbelly of Paris. He determines Kim and Amanda have been taken by Albanian traffickers, who kidnap unassuming young women and, usually within 70 hours, ship them away forever. A number of plot threads that might give more insight into this under-discussed, tragic world are abandoned, including an odd moment when Mills cares for a kidnapped woman whom he first thinks is Kim. There's also an encounter in which Mills' French government contact appears to be in cahoots with the traffickers, but that's mostly an excuse for Mills to throw a few more punches and track another clue.
The action, though sometimes over-edited and confusing, is mostly thrilling, including an early chase scene at a construction site and a final confrontation on a boat in the Seine. Neeson is such an automatically empathetic figure that he gets away with a lot, including torturing a suspect, threatening innocent bystanders, and shooting a man's wife in the arm to teach him a lesson. There's a whole lot of violence within the PG-13 rating, and not all of it of the satisfying, "justice to the bad guys!' kind. But action fans will be continually impressed by Morel's skill behind the camera, and instinctive understanding of how to pace even the most extended action sequence.
Maggie Grace, even given how little she has to do in her role, is astonishingly bad at playing a teenager, and Famke Janssen adds another to her line of blank, stuck-up wife roles. But all the movie really needs is Neeson and a row of henchmen for him to mow down, and as long as the action is moving, it all works fine. A 5-minute coda to wrap up the characters reminds you of how awful the beginning was, and keeps the movie from really qualifying as "good." But as fast, dumb entertainment goes, Taken is tough to beat.