Normally heroic, noble and solid as a rock, Liam Neeson seems right in his element saving hundreds of victims in "Schindler's List" or providing the voice of the almighty lion king Aslan in "The Chronicles of Narnia."
He's the last guy you'd expect to find cutting a bloody swath across Paris, cold-bloodedly killing scores of adversaries with a minimum of wasted moves and even less conscience.
In "Taken," he's got a good excuse.
In this surprise box-office winner, he plays Bryan Mills, the sad-sack divorced dad of a 17-year-old daughter (Maggie Grace). "Taken" is sort of a mixture of "The Bourne Identity" and "College Road Trip." There's no comedy in its pedal-to-the-metal car chases and nonstop shootouts, but it has everything to do with cute high-school girls and their overprotective dads.
Neeson begins the movie in his low-rise L.A. apartment complex, guilt-ridden about not having been there to watch his daughter grow up. His wife (Famke Janssen) has moved on to the greener pastures of Beverly Hills where her gazillionaire new hubby gives their daughter parties with tents on the lawn and new ponies for her birthday.
Liam hangs on the girl's slightest smile when she'll even see him. Those times are mostly when she wants something from him - like permission (it's a legal formality since she's still underage) for a trip to Paris with a girlfriend.
Dad, of course, doesn't think that's a good idea. Until he remembers that's the only way she's going to smile at him again.
Too bad. The girls have barely gotten off the plane in Paris before they are abducted by Albanian sex-slavers. Should have listened to daddy.
But when Liam learns of her plight, it's amazing how quickly he sheds the sad-sack demeanor and reverts to his former self.
That former self worked for the CIA. And is still awfully good at that line of work.
Given an 80-hour window to get to Paris and find her, the task initially seems impossible. But once he gets the scent through a mix of brilliant deductions and a willingness to ruthlessly dispatch anyone who gets in the way, you realize the impossible odds are actually in his favor.
Pierre Morel's direction of Luc Besson's screenplay is more workmanlike than inspired, but Neeson adds dimensions rarely found in the action genre. Not only does he kill people without batting an eye, but given the choice, he'd rather see them suffer first.
But considering the business they're in, you find yourself cheering him on. When one tries to bargain at the wrong end of Neeson's gun that it's "only business," he responds that for him, it's only personal. Then he pulls the trigger.
For all its politically incorrect violence, watching "Taken" is a heady sensation. Ironically, it outperformed industry expectations and won the Super Bowl weekend box-office race, a time normally targeted at female viewers. A large part of its audience was men over 60.
It seems to have struck a universal Oedipal nerve with dads of teenage daughters. Liam's path of bloody revenge is, as much as anything else, a quixotic attempt to fulfill the perfect vision his daughter had of him when she was 5. And everyone in the theater knows that for all the bad guys he leaves dead in his wake, if he ever finds his daughter again, he'll be putty in her hands once more.
The fact that "Taken" opened on Super Bowl weekend was a double whammy, since the "holiday" is about testosterone gone wild in the first place.
For all the mad men on the field - the officials were plenty busy with penalties Sunday - Super Bowl has also become a celebration of the "Mad Men" - and women - creating the ads that have become a bigger part of the story than the game itself.
While the ads had flashes of brilliance - Bob Dylan and Will.i.am's version of "Forever Young," for example - most felt like returns to familiar territory. Granted, it was fun to get the back story on the Budweiser Clydesdales and to glimpse the metaphysical powers of crunching a Dorito.
But for the first time in a long time, at this year's Super Bowl, the actual pageantry was better than the hype. From honoring the crew of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 to the "National Anthem" sung by Jennifer Hudson, it was about real stuff for a change.
Real good stuff. The game turned out to be great. It reflected the theme running through the afternoon that it's time to get to work.
But as Bruce Springsteen reminded us during the dynamite halftime show, there's no reason why getting to work can't be a whole lot of fun.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com