No one would deny that brutal, vigilante violence is bad. By itself, it's gross and ugly, and there's nothing constructive or nice about it. On the other hand, forcing young girls into sex slavery is worse. It's so much worse, in fact, that it can actually make brutal vigilante violence seem constructive and nice by comparison.
This is the basic theme of "Taken." It's an illustration of fatherly love and loyalty taking precedence over laws, ethics and the wider cultural morality, portraying a long string of serial murders as a touching gesture from a father to his daughter.
Our anti-hero is Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson, "Batman Begins"), a former "preventer of bad things" for the U.S. government. Having ruined his marriage to Lenore (Famke Janssen, "The Wackness") and neglected his fatherly duties to daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, TV's "Lost") for his career, Bryan has retired from preventing to mend familial fences.
Unfortunately, poor Bryan is having a rough time of it. Kim is kind, but the former Mrs. Bryan comes off cooler than a cooler of Coors. It doesn't help she's now married to a super-rich jerk (Xander Berkeley, TV's "24") who can afford to give Kim a "My Super Sweet 16"-style birthday pary and an actual pony.
The distance between them is bridged when Lenore tries to persuade Bryan in signing papers allowing Kim, who is only 17, to leave the country to party in Paris with a friend. He reluctantly agrees after a trip on the crying-daughter guilt train, with the condition that Kim calls him daily.
This leads to the scenario from the movie's trailer, in which Kim breathlessly tells her daddy that someone is in the apartment. They steal her friend, Kim gets under the bed, and Bryan, back in Los Angeles, records the kidnapping as it happens.
Using the recording for clues, Bryan discovers his little girl has been taken by Albanian slave traders who like kidnapping young, unaccompanied girls from abroad, stringing them out on drugs and prostituting them on the streets of the world. He has a narrow window in which to find and retrieve her. With the ticking clock ticking, he wastes no time in getting to Paris, where he picks up his daughter's trail and begins dealing hardcore mayhem on the heads of those he meets along the way.
Co-written by Luc Besson, who had a hand in many other tense action movies including "The Transporter," "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional," "Taken" is, on its surface, pretty unbelievable. Bryan is in many ways a cartoonish action hero in the tradition of "Rambo," "Die Hard," "Under Siege" and Besson's own "Transporter" character. The big difference here is that Bryan is played by Neeson, who can convey more emotional range in a facial tic or hand gesture than Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal and Jason Statham combined.
Director Pierre Morel ("District B13") makes a wise investment in his characters by spending the first third of the movie making us like and feel sorry for Bryan and Kim, a strategy that creates real tension and plot movement later. Make no mistake: This is a violent movie. It's slightly over-the-top, but mostly realistic and brutal enough to generate some queasiness in some viewers.
But again, the reason for the violence creates an impulse to root for Bryan as he shoots, snaps, stabs and strangles his way through the French capital. It's not clear how accurately the sex slave trade is portrayed here, but if it's even close, it's absolutely shocking. Women are stolen from the airport, hotel rooms and wherever they can be conveniently subdued, stripped of their identities and forced to walk the streets or, worse, lie in filthy warrens of cubicles, servicing lines of men. Some of the (arguably) luckier women are put up for auction, bid upon by billionaires who can blow half a million on an underaged virgin. While Bryan's violence is sometimes sickening and disturbing, the idea of anyone's daughter being forced to live as a drug-addled sex robot is even more so.
Still, as strong as its strengths are, "Taken" has a few flaws. The ending is possibly too fairy-tale, and at times the cartoonish-ness of the action-driven side of the plot moves so far out of reality that it becomes distracting. The movie doesn't offer a realistic solution to the problem of sex slavery or the brutalization of women around the world, and it doesn't even offer much by way of examining the problem. "Taken" simply offers a fantasy-driven catharsis for our outrage and frustration over a truly evil practice. And Liam Neeson murdering a bunch of dudes.