Memories. Former CIA action hero Bryan (Liam Neeson) is haunted by them incessantly, though not the sort you’d imagine. While a couple of conversations with his former comrades suggests they spent some thrilling times in eastern Europe and the Middle East, Bryan is obsessed with more mundane recollections, made special for him because they now seem so beyond his reach. The first scenes of Taken make plain his obsessive focus on his daughter Kim (or Kimmie, as he calls her always), first as a home-movied, big-smiled five-year-old with birthday cake, then in subsequent snapshots. He keeps these images in a scrapbook, fixing each passing year in his mind — so he can sit in his stark apartment and fret about the daughter he fears he’s lost.
When his friends invite him to rejoin them, Bryan resists. He’s given up the spy life, he reminds them, in order to make it up to Kimmie (Maggie Grace). He tells her that he was a “preventer,” staving off “bad things.” Now, jobless, he waits for her call, hoping she’ll spend a few minutes with him. He lives in a bleak apartment down the street from the mansion where Kimmie lives with her mom/his ex, Lenore (Famke Janssen) and her current husband Stuart (Xander Berkeley). This new austere existence involves repeated and varied castigation, as he subjects himself to Lenore’s snipey putdowns and unfavorable comparisons with the superrich Stuart, who first appears at Kimmie’s 17th birthday, leading his present for her, a shiny black horse, across their rolling lawn. Lenore resents Bryan every which way, making fun of his inferior gift (a karaoke machine) and rejecting out of hand what amounts to his threat assessment regarding Kimmie’s upcoming trip to France. She’s traveling with her best blond friend, staying in a swank Parisian apartment, and girlishly reckless when it comes to security details. Dad knows better, but when he’s outvoted by the girls, he can only wait until disaster strikes to prove it.
Thankfully, all this melodramatic set-up takes little time in Pierre Morel’s extra-actionated thriller. Almost as soon as Kimmie lands in Paris and neglects to call her father on the super-phone he’s provided her, she’s punished — severely. Just as Bryan does call her, she and the blond are beaten and abducted by Albanian sex traffickers. It’s a remarkable scene — and much replayed in fragmented form in the promotional trailer — in which Bryan first overhears the violence wreaked on his daughter (lots of tension as she’s grabbed from her hiding place under a bed, just after Bryan tells her: “They’re going to take you”) and then threatens the faceless assailant who picks up her phone. “I don’t have money,” Bryan says evenly, “But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.” The villain scoffs, the way villains do, speaking in English, “Good luck.” Yes, there will be blood — and broken bones and crashed cars and smashed faces and explosions and more blood.
Advised by his CIA buddy (Leland Orser) that he’s got just 96 hours to find Kimmie (based on his apparent expert knowledge of kidnappings, sex trafficking, and Albanian gangs), Bryan jets to Paris, where he wastes little time tracking down images and names and locations. When he seeks the help of an old associate, St-Clair (Olivier Rabourdin), now a police captain, Bryan quickly learns that his legendary mayhem-making is no longer appreciated. To the order-keeping captain, Bryan looks like a cowboy, leaving in his wake expensive wreckage and mangled corpses. This conflict allows Bryan to feel even more righteously affronted, as his mission this time is not just some abstract version of keeping the world safe for his family back home, but a literal rescue of a family member from terrible awful deplorable men who deserve every kind of abuse he can conjure.
The basic story is familiar, the sort of captivity narrative that reinforces differences between races and genders. From Mary Rowlandson to Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers to Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott) in Hardcore (Paul Schrader’s even creepier version of the story he wrote for Taxi Driver), white American men have gone forth to recover nieces and wives and daughters who have been disappeared into prostitution and sexual slavery. When the girl/woman’s dire fate is compounded by captivity or congress with someone of another race/nation/ethnicity, well, the stakes seem to escalate beyond the hero’s capacity for control. Just so, Bryan’s discovery that Kimmie is not just being doped up and trafficked with the other girls, but has been deemed special and sold for lots of money to a “swarthy” other makes him even more urgently driven by the desire to fix the world and reassert his superiority — masculine and paternal.
Bryan does bring something extra to formula. Possessed of that “very particular set of skills,” he displays brutal, merciless efficiency in all matters. This helps to make Taken both audacious and frequently entertaining, as well as of a piece with Morel’s stylishly scrappy District B13, another basic rescue story juiced up by hectic cuts, acrobatic camera angles, and elaborate stunts (see also: Greengrass’ Bourne movies). Neeson is here remade into an effectively irritated action hero — almost as impatient with doubters as with the actual pimps and gunsels he tortures and murders with expert abandon. But unlike Ethan Edwards, for instance, Bryan never faces questions about his worldview. Rather, each encounter reinforces his uncompromised post-9/11-ism. He’s right. They’re wrong. It doesn’t matter who they are.