‘Taken’: No More Mr. Nice Guy, By Kurt Loder

Liam Neeson, terminator?

A few years back, the French director Pierre Morel made a movie called “District B13″ — an action flick so compact and focused, it felt like an actual kick in the head. I’m sure there was a storyline, but I can’t be bothered to recall it. The picture was almost pure kinetic frenzy, a small classic.

Now, Morel has been given a much larger budget and yet managed to come up with a movie that, hobbled as it is with genre impurities, seems somehow smaller. Bryan Mills, the hero of [movie id="340882"]“Taken,”[/movie] is a merciless killing machine — would we have it any other way? But he’s a sensitive merciless killing machine — sensitive, in fact, to the point of pining whininess. I suppose it’s a good thing that Mills is played by Liam Neeson, that master of manly emotion; but even he can’t pull together such an awkwardly bifurcated character.

Mills is a retired spy whose black-ops career wrecked his marriage and made him very sad. His ex-wife, a bitch-from-hell named Lenore (Famke Janssen in a thankless and barely written role) was no great loss, but he rues the estrangement of his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), now 17. We get to rue this right along with him for longer than we might wish as he mopes among her childhood snapshots and browses for a cute birthday present to give her. No kicks in the head here; not even a gift-shop jostle. Finally, though, Kim herself shifts the plot into gear when she asks Dad to allow her to spend her summer vacation in Paris, with a girlfriend. Mills is reluctant. He knows the world is a dangerous place — he spent his entire spy career helping make it that way. But he relents, and soon Kim and her friend are en route to Paris, where — just as Mills figured! — they are almost immediately abducted by a gang of Albanian sex-slave traffickers. Quicker than you can say “merciless killing machine,” Mills has hopped on a plane himself, and the chase is afoot. Excellent.

The action, which is close to nonstop, gets underway as soon as Mills arrives in Paris. Tipped by an old spook colleague, he makes his way to a red-light district, busts up a skuzzy bordello (who knew they kept machine guns and high explosives in such places?), rescues one of the drugged sex slaves therein, cures her of her forced addiction with a hotel-room transfusion and quickly gets a line on Kim. By this early point, Mills has already greased seven scumbags and put three more in the hospital. Next, he lays hands on one of the Albanian goons and hooks him up to an electrical generator. (“We used to outsource this sort of thing,” he says, by way of banter.) Then he shoots somebody’s wife to make a point and moves on to the main event — a sex-slave auction at a grand Paris mansion. Here he not only catches sight of Kim, but learns that some fat Arab is willing to pay half a million dollars for the pleasure of her extended company. (This struck me as a bit much: Maggie Grace is pretty and all, but come on.)

The action continues at a raging pace, and Morel, who started out as a cinematographer, knows how to put us right in the middle of it. A lot of the best stuff — the close-quarters bone-cracking and the Seine-side automotive melee — is fundamentally Bourne again. But even thrills of such a second freshness are hardly boring, and Liam Neeson, who’s now 56 but used to be a boxer, acquits himself with appropriately savage grace. Some people would no doubt object to most of the vile guys in the picture being, shall we say, not in the mainstream of Western Civilization — but is it not for those people that movies like “Hotel for Dogs” are made? With no more Nazis to provide shorthand villainy, what’s a shameless action director (and his equally shameless writer-producer partner, Luc Besson) to do?

What drags this movie down is the character at the center of it. Bryan Mills is such a wet sock in the early scenes, mooning on and on over his little girl, that we can’t quite track his sudden leap into total terminator mode. And since Mr. Softy keeps putting in appearances, he becomes a considerable distraction, not to say a major annoyance. Couldn’t somebody, like, terminate him?

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “The Uninvited” and “New in Town,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Taken.”

For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.