Dumped into American theaters in January 2009, few people expected the French-produced action movie Taken to do much business on these shores, even with a noted star like Liam Neeson in the lead role. But not only did the film become a hit, it was a massive hit, almost doubling its international gross over the course of its domestic theatrical run. It also gave Neeson a whole new career as a bankable action star, paving the way for such movies as The A-Team, Unknown and The Grey (well, one out of three ain't bad). A sequel was unnecessary, but also inevitable and this time around, Taken 2 is getting the prime October berth and major ad campaign that befits a big Hollywood (by way of Europe) blockbuster. So the release recipe is a bit different, but the movie itself turns out to be exactly the same.
Well, okay Taken 2 (which I really feel should have been called something more creative like Re-Taken or Taken It 2 The Streetz) does offer up some slight variations on the original. For example, in the sequel, Neeson's CIA spook-turned-security expert Bryan Mills doesn't have to rescue his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) from the clutches of an Albanian trafficking syndicate. Here he has to rescue his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) -- as well as himself, briefly -- from the clutches of an Albanian trafficking syndicate. And where Taken took place in picturesque Paris, Taken 2 journeys to picturesque Istanbul (not Constantinople). Oh, and one more thing: last time, Bryan tried to help his baby girl with her singing lessons. This time, he tries to help Kim with her driving lessons. See what they did there? Basically producer/co-writer Luc Besson penned this new movie by turning the script from the previous one into a big game of Mad Libs.
Not that any sane person is going to Taken 2 for the script, mind you. The appeal of the franchise lies in watching Neeson play the ultimate bad-ass dad, the kind of father figure who can give his daughter a big bear hug and then immediately use those same arms to break some dude's neck. The first Taken was a straight-up exploitation picture, filled with bloody, bone-crunching violence, overt misogyny and unapologetic xenophobia regarding dark-skinned foreigners. (That the movie was actually taken seriously in some quarters -- just watch Gene Shalit's amazingly misinformed review -- says a lot about how a segment of the American population views of the rest of the world, none of it good.) What made it all palatable, if not exactly excusable, was Neeson's earnestness and single-minded devotion to the task at hand. Both Taken movies are a throwback to the pre-Die Hard days, when action heroes were straight-faced supermen who got the job done with no muss and no fuss.
As previously mentioned though, Taken 2 briefly attempts to present Bryan as a mere mortal when he allows himself to be taken along with Lenore by the hired goons working for Murad (Yugoslavian-born actor Rade Serbedzija, no stranger to playing European criminals), the revenge-seeking father of the Albanian trafficking kingpin that Mills offed in the first movie. Handcuffed to a pipe in some underground lair while his ex bleeds to death in front of him, it looks like curtains for ol' Bry-Bry. Fortunately, he's managed to stash away a tiny cell phone that he uses to call Kim, currently seeking refuge in their hotel. This leads into one of the movie's most absurd -- and therefore awesome -- set-pieces, in which Bryan coaches his daughter through an operation to determine his exact location that involves drawing circles on a map of Istanbul and then tossing a live grenade out a window onto the parking lot roof next door to the hotel. (I'm not doing this scene justice in my description; just trust me when I say that it's hysterical in a good way. If only MacGruber had been this funny.)
After this sequence, part of me wanted the whole movie to consist of Neeson barking orders at Grace like an on-the-go version of Phone Booth. But wiser heads prevailed and Bryan quickly escapes his jailers and goes on the offensive, hitting Murad and his army of thugs where it hurts... you know, the solar plexus, the head, the knees -- places like that. The action is competently staged by Besson disciple Olivier Megaton (who previously helmed the Zoe Saldana-powered thriller Colombiana as well as the third Transporter flick) and the movie's star brings his considerable gravitas to every scene. In short, there's nothing about Taken 2 that's noticeably better or worse than the first one. And maybe that's why the movie feels so perfunctory, like an entire deleted scene that was intended to be a DVD extra, but wound up going to theaters instead. It's fine, it works, it does what it sets out to do, but don't expect to be able to tell it apart from the first Taken. And we probably aren't done with Bryan Mills just yet; listen closely towards the end of the movie and you'll hear how Besson lays the groundwork for at least two more sure-to-be identical sequels. Here's an idea: maybe the Mill family should just stop going to Europe already.
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