While shooting Taken, Liam Neeson thought this movie would be a straight-to-video actioner, but he was getting paid to work in Paris, so it was a fair trade under the circumstances. Based on the crudest outline of the plot, it’s easy to see where he would make that mistake.
What makes this movie work, and elevated it to the cinematic first team, was an emotionally valid setup and an actor with the chops for the important father/daughter dynamic, and who can still credibly bring off the physical requirements the action scenes.
Neeson is Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA spook whose somewhat marginal existence now centers around winning back the affections of his 17-year-old daughter, Kim (Lost’s Maggie Grace). His ex-wife (Famke Jansenn) has remarried to a wealthy stuffed shirt (Xander Berkley), and the couple seem intent on spoiling the girl rotten. Unable to drive any permanent wedge between father and daughter, their indulgent birthday gift for her is a trip to Paris with her friend, Amanda.
Bryan, who knows a little bit about the wicked ways of the world, is not happy about his little girl going half-way around the world with another teenager, but he just can’t say no to her. He tries to arm her with as much wisdom as he can before sending her off.
If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
Unfortunately, the girls accept a ride from the airport from a spotter for an Albanian human trafficking ring. In a scene that did for student travel in Europe what Sideways did for sales of Merlot, Kim is in the middle of a phone call home to daddy when she witnesses her friend being abducted moments before she is taken herself. It may be small compensation, but Bryan at least gets to deliver one of the best macho applause lines since Harry Callahan asked a punk if he felt lucky.
Armed with information from his former CIA buddy, including the fact that he has less than four days to find Kim before she disappears into a world of white slavery and prostitution, Bryan bums a ride on one of the step-dad’s corporate jets and spends the next 96 hours using his lethal CIA skills to create numerous job openings in the Albanian mafia (all while placing a huge strain on whatever death and dismemberment insurance plan said crime syndicate might offer).
The last hour of the film’s lean 93 minute running time is dedicated to Neeson punching, kicking, stabbing, electrocuting, and shooting his way through a satisfyingly scuzzy selection of swarthy stuntmen, all while driving through Paris at breakneck speeds on the wrong side of the road (I guess that happens when you hire an Irish actor).
It’s fortunate that the father’s devotion his daughter is so well portrayed, that we believe that this man would go to such lengths for his only offspring, because some of Bryan’s methods in that cause would make even Jack Bauer say, “Dude, you need to relax.”
The film connects because it plays to the fantasies of any father (and probably mother) of teenaged girls, about what he or she would do if someone, anyone laid a dishonorable finger on his or her little darling. When Bryan puts a bullet through the skull of the very last, scuzziest bad guy, every parent in the audience probably just nodded and said under his or her breath, “Well played, sir. Well played.”
Because we identify with Bryan Mills the father, and because the film allows no shading between good and evil, we excuse ourselves to forgive Bryan Mills when he shoots an otherwise innocent woman in the arm just to extract information from her husband.
Taken may not appeal to our most noble instincts, but at least those instincts allow us to feel a little bit better about enjoying the spectacle of Liam Neeson using the worst of humanity for target practice.