The MPAA's parental advisory ratings are meant to help mothers and fathers decide what's appropriate for children. The violent thriller Taken requires a whole line of explanation spelling out how this battering revenge flick got the same PG-13 (parental guidance for children under 13) as the innocuous but merely time-killing New in Town.
Parents deserve their own, simple rating for Taken - maybe DG, for Don't Go. Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA man who retires and moves close to Los Angeles to be near his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) just when she decides to tour Europe with a feckless friend too mindless to appear on 90210. The movie has no substantial emotional texture whatsoever, but it does have a devastating emotional hook: Mills becomes an ear-witness, via cell phone, to his daughter's abduction from a Paris apartment.
Without even saying "I told you so" to the ex-wife (Famke Janssen) and her second husband-zillionaire (Xander Berkeley), he takes the first jet Kim's stepfather can procure to not-so-gay Paree. He quickly discovers that Kim has been kidnapped by an Albanian-run prostitution and sex-slave ring that makes a specialty of selling virgins to people who put a premium on purity, such as sheiks. Taken is like a post-Sept. 11 throwback to the most primitive movie melodramas about innocents threatened with "a fate worse than death." No one ever uses that phrase here; no one has to.
Mills takes a kill-first, ask-questions-later approach to chopping, stabbing and shooting his way through the underworld of shady Albanians in Paris (he believes he has a 96-hour window before he loses Kim forever). When Mills uses electricity to shock the truth out of one Albanian bad guy, you don't know whether director Pierre Morel (District B-13) and screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (the Transporter series) are saying torture produces results or whether they're merely being lazy. Although a French source implies that hundreds of Albanians do similar dirty work, Mills knows just which clutch of streetwalkers will lead him to the pimp who will set him on the right low road to Kim. (By the way, the French don't come off clean: Their corruption enables the Albanians' evil.)
This film isn't an enjoyable martial-arts extravaganza like District B-13 or the Transporter films. Neeson may be in fighting trim, but Mills' chases and smackdowns are notable for their ferocity rather than their athleticism. And if Mills is always at flash point, there's no psychology for his flashes of action to illuminate. Mills is in mission mode until Kim is safe. Neeson gets off on the intensity. He low-keys the opening scenes, which portray Mills as a clumsy, abashed dad giving Kim a karaoke machine for her birthday before her stepdad presents her with a horse. Then, he gets right into the vengeance.
After years of being wasted as the mentor who teaches younger heroes everything he knows in films like Gangs of New York and Batman Begins, Neeson may have relished the idea of taking center stage for an entire movie, even if the stage is more like a shooting gallery.
Yet there's little pleasure for the audience in seeing an actor of his heroic presence, who's been superb as the suavely complex Oskar Schindler and the swashbuckling, valorous Rob Roy, turn himself into a vengeful superdad. In Taken, an excruciating atavism of a movie, father knows best in the worst way - and he's ready to enforce it, come hell or high melodrama.
(20th Century Fox) Starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen. Directed by Pierre Morel. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, some drug references and language. Time 94 minutes.