Mark Dacoscos and Steven Seagal are crying. Taken should have instigated a cage match between them for superiority; this stuff is their bread and butter. That is, it’s the sort of revenge film that makes for great DTV fodder. But Liam Neeson changes the equation completely. Not that the movie is significantly better because of him, but Neeson attacks his scenes with such determined ferocity that it’s easy to look at Taken in a more positive light than it deserves.

Ex-CIA goon and proud father Bryan Mills (Neeson) has a lesson to teach his daughter: lie to me and sexual slavery is right around the corner. He has moved to LA, ostensibly to be closer to daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) but really to get this important point across. The kid lives with mom (Famke Janssen, barely giving a damn) and an ostentatiously wealthy stepfather. Kim says she wants to spend the summer visiting museums in Paris but is really planning an extensive road trip. Supposedly hungry for her affection, but actually eager to get his paranoid point across, Bryan allows her to go.

So when the shit hits the fan about thirty-seven minutes after Kim gets to Paris, Bryan is ready with his black bag and well-studied grimace. You don’t need an extensive flashback sequence to know that he’s been practicing that intense look before bed every night since his divorce.

Kim is kidnapped by unknown assailants, and the crime goes down in a fun extended sequence. Said sequence reaches new heights of wonder when Bryan gets on the phone to deliver an extended soliloquy of intimidation to the heavy breather on the other end. It’s tough not to chuckle overloud as he dictates a long memo detailing just how fucked these guys are, but it’s even more difficult not to enjoy it. Because that’s the moment where Neeson’s sales pitch begins in earnest.

Working under the impression that he has 96 hours to find his daughter before she disappears into sexual slavery somewhere in Europe, Bryan goes into action. He does so quietly, eagerly, and with an Oscar nominee’s committed energy. The difference between Neeson’s grim forward momentum and that of anyone else you could typically expect to see in this movie is massive.

It doesn’t matter that Taken glances over all manner of logistical difficulties. This isn’t Zodiac. It’s not a minutely detailed procedural. It’s a story of the sort of highly trained dude who lives out fantasies of busting the heads owned by everyone who stands between him and a target.

Resisting Neeson’s energy at every turn is the script, which can barely manage enough ideas to fill out ninety minutes. One unexpected gunshot aside, for those who’ve been around the block with revenge movies, Bryan’s methods are surprisingly bloodless. The film moves very much by the numbers, riding only on Neeson’s determination.

One note: in the time that Taken has been available in various forms worldwide (atypically, North America is the last market to get the movie) I’ve read a lot of irritation directed at Maggie Grace. I’ll allow that she’s playing closer to 15 than 17, but Kim acts like a spoiled, flighty teenage girl. She’s in her own world, oblivious to everything else, and that’s just about right.

This might have been a special little potboiler if any other element engaged Neeson on his level. There is nothing under the surface here, no intimation that Bryan Mills might be just a bit insane or that his daughter will suffer a lifetime of fatherly imposition or the desire for same. There’s a sick, inquisitive, memorable movie to be spun out of Taken. Where’s the old Paul Schrader when Liam Neeson needs him?

6.1 out of 10