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Perfectly calibrated 

‘Taken’ is thrilling, but soulless.

SHOOT TO KILL: Liam Neeson in 'Taken.'
  • SHOOT TO KILL: Liam Neeson in 'Taken.'

I knew exactly what I was getting into when I plopped down to watch “Taken,” and — if you've seen the ads — so should you. The trailer reveals all but the finish, provoking every pertinent emotional response along the way. It's thrilling. Spooled out to feature-length, the proper film is hardly less so, only it's composed with such ruthlessness that the thing feels entirely hermetic. You exit the theater with little sense of the experience beyond the dull discomfort brought on by eating too much popcorn. Whether you regret it or not depends on your disposition toward empty calories.

Still, let us proceed according to the late John Updike's rule No. 1 for writing a fair review: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” This film's director set out to make an action movie, complete with international intrigue, various chase sequences, a race against time, an outgunned protagonist and a virtuous damsel in distress. He did exactly that. If this film were a toaster, it would be a perfectly calibrated machine: shiny, effective and utterly soulless. You should expect nothing more than toast. Perfect toast.

Back to that awesome trailer: Loving father gives a birthday gift to adoring teen-aged daughter in the bright of day. Next, the two in a coffee shop where daughter exuberantly explains that she has been invited by friend to summer in Paris. Father knits brow. Quick kick-drum-accompanied cut to flashing screen. Cut to split-screened international cell phone convo, which starts fine but soon gets all scary when daughter sees friend being abducted in another part of the house. Panic! But wait: Father turns out to know exactly what to do, has shady CIA past, calmly walks daughter through imminent abduction. Girl screams as she's dragged from beneath a bed. Abductors pick up phone. Father assures them that he is King Badass, embarks on a threatening soliloquy, intercut with flash-framed evidence, on the subject of their two options: 1. Let daughter go. 2. Feel the pain. Abductors pick door number two before we cut to hyperventilation and ominous music. [Overweight male leans to neighbor and insists that that is exactly what he would do, i.e. rip out throats with bare hands. Chest swells. Neighbor grunts.]

Unlike slasher pics that end up wasting all their best scares in ads, as well as comedies that throw away their best laughs, it is in no way unfortunate that this trailer reveals the entire plot, because the plot is beside the point. The point is in the execution and ultimate fulfillment of that father's promise/threat. Directed by Pierre Morrell and produced by the great Luc Besson, the Frenchness of this type of vehicle cannot be overstated. It's blunter than we're used to, makes no bones but breaks twice as many. We get none of the hand-wringing ambiguity of American fare. Liam Neeson, whose bad dye-job and large old-man ears make him seem slightly creaky for the part, has need of only one motivation, and after the filmmaker hammers home the character's single-minded devotion to his daughter, the pursuit of her abductors is given free reign. Morality is paid no heed and has no place. Why muddy the waters?

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