In "Missing," Becca Winstone (Ashley Judd) uses her espionage… (ABC )
In ABC's new thriller "Missing," a former CIA agent whose child has been kidnapped springs out of retirement with guns, martial-arts skills and primal parental passion blazing. If that sounds familiar, well, it was also the plot of the 2008 film "Taken," which had Liam Neeson tearing through Paris to extricate his daughter from the clutches of a sex-trafficking ring.
In "Missing," the gender roles are reversed. When Michael (Nick Eversman), a student studying abroad in Rome, goes missing, his mother, Becca Winstone (Ashley Judd), jumps on a plane, calling on dormant assassin skills and surprised former contacts to track him down.
It's a terrific idea, putting the popular hot-warrior archetype ("Alias," "Nikita," any film starring Angelina Jolie) atop the pit bull-with-lipstick soccer-mom imprint, a draw for multiple demographics — moms, dads, even kids who might think it was kind of cool in a weird way. (What it if turned out my really lame mom was actually a spy?) Certainly creator Gregory Poirier ("National Treasure: Book of Secrets") knows how to work both tension and a travel budget; in early episodes, we visit Marseille, Rome and Paris with more international capitols on the itinerary, so add in a few random Rick Steves fans.
Unfortunately, Ashley Judd is not Liam Neeson, nor is she Angelina Jolie, and the most promising aspect of the show — Sean Bean as her husband and CIA colleague, Paul — appears to get killed off quite early. (Apparently he will return via flashback; the sooner the better, I say.)
Granted, Becca is a pretty tough role to establish. Convincing an audience that your character is a loving, overprotective mom/flower shop owner who can also garrote a man twice her size without breaking a sweat takes some doing. Torn between presenting as too soft and too tough, Judd hews to a strangely static middle ground that can only be characterized as "grim."
Speaking too often in a flat, expressionless voice with accompanying frozen-faced, direct-eye contact, Becca doesn't appear desperate or furious (first her husband, now her kid?), or frightened or focused. She just seems to be efficiently moving from one oh-look-my-super-spy-skills-are-still-fully-functional moment to another without the slightest flicker of self-commentary (such as, "Boy, am I glad I kept up with the running"). Obviously, "Missing" is not a comedy, but even when the script gives this former cold-blooded spy lines that could be made human with a wry smile or a self-conscious laugh — "I joined the PTA, I went to soccer" — Judd plays them absolutely straight, like an operative dutifully reciting the steps of a mission.
She can say, "I'm not a spy, I'm just a mother looking for her son" as often as she wants (and she does, with wearisome regularity), but since Judd makes it so difficult to engage with her character, Becca's quest becomes less, rather than more, emotionally evocative. What viewers are left with, then, are some excellent fight and chase scenes, an outstanding supporting cast (who, alas, only highlight the main character's deficiencies) and a lot of truly beautiful location work.
It may be enough, but it could, and should, have been so much more.