Stuff Blows Up – Taken 2 (2012)
The first Taken film, released in 2008, came as a bit of a surprise. It’s an effective, lean, mean action film elevated by a convincing, driven central performance from Liam Neeson. After a lacklustre 20 minutes (10 of which are entirely unnecessary), the film delivered one of the most gripping, perfectly executed scenes in recent action films. Brian Mills (Neeson) on the phone to his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) as she is abducted, to be sold into prostitution. What follows is a relentless series of beatings as Mills devastates the Parisian immigrant population in his search for his daughter. It’s pure, grim, visceral thrills, and it’s one of the better action films of the past 5 years. It was also a big hit on a modest budget. Inevitably, we get a sequel. How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice? Well, when you bludgeon to death half the population of Albania, a few of the victims family members may kick up a stink.
At the mass burial of the victims of Brian Mills rampage through the streets of Paris, a father vows vengeance. The man is Murad (Rade Šerbedžija), chief of the Albanian Mafia, and father to a Grade A scumbag that Mills tortured to death. If you remember the first film, he was the bloke Mills left sizzling in the electric chair. It just so happens that Mills is in Istanbul, reconnecting with Kim and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). It’s a good day to die hard. No wait, that’s a different sequel. Brian and Lenore are abducted, but not before Brian can call Kim, giving the film a chance to mimic the first films best scene. Now captured, they’re taken to a basement, Lenore has her throat cut and she is hung upside down to die a slow death. Brian is handcuffed to a pipe. Silly Albanians. No mortal pipe can hold big, bad Brian. He just so happens to have a mini mobile phone stuffed in his sock, and gets a call away to Kim, who’s back at the hotel, hiding in a cupboard from more Albanian goons. Brian instructs Kim to take guns and grenades from his briefcase, and has her set cross the city, setting off the grenades. He leads her to his location using calculations of the time of explosion and the time it takes for the sound to carry to his whereabouts. Istanbul police don’t seem to be too fussed by a teenage girl wandering the city throwing grenades around. They’re pretty laid back like that.
What follows is what exactly what you expect from Taken 2. Car chases, shoot outs, fistifcuffs and a showdown with Murad. Only this time it feels empty. The edge is gone. Some of it has to do with the change to a PG-13 rating. The first film was relentless, brutal, and remorseless. Brian was on a desperate mission and steamrolled anyone in his path. Here, Brian is still the bad-ass, but the lower rating has softened his blows. Gun shots have no visual impact, punches don’t land, bones don’t break. It’s not necessary for all action films to be R rated, but watering down a film such as this does no-one any favours.
The other problem with Taken 2 is that it feels like a retread. It’s so content to stick to the same formula that it never catches fire. You’ve seen the first film, and you’ve seen everything Taken 2 has to offer. Only better. The “human drama” of the Taken films is the least interesting aspect, so seeing the continued efforts of Brian trying to relate to his daughter isn’t worth your time. The action and pacing is the poor cousin of the first films strong narrative drive. And instead of turning it up to 11, like an action sequel should, Taken 2 is showing its age and telling those darn kids to turn down that infernal racket.
There are also blank spots during the film. Easy outs where the writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen just ignore things they can’t be bothered creating a reasonable solution for. The previously mentioned total lack of police is a big one. I can recall just one scene that featured the police, and that was a crooked cop in cahoots with the bad guys. This despite very public displays of violence and mayhem. Shootouts, car chases, foot chases, explosions and punch ups all go by unnoticed by the general population of Istanbul. Are they so used to groups of Albanian men going apeshit on stag weekends that they turn a blind eye to any and all riotous behaviour?
A big car chase through the streets of Istanbul concludes in Kim and Brian crashing a taxi through the gates of the American Embassy, coming to a stop in the smoking wreckage of the car at the steps of the building. From the car Mills calls one of his CIA buddies and asks him to call the embassy. In the very next shot Mills is back out on the streets of Istanbul on the trail of the Albanians. I realise this is an action film, but at least some semblance of reality is required. One of the elements that made the first film as good as it is, is that Mills clearly follows an A to B to C path on his journey. His progress is helped along by coincidence and remarkable good fortune, but it’s always clear how he got from A to B. The sequel is incredibly lazy in this regard, ignoring any difficult obstacle that may present itself.
From a technical standpoint, Taken 2 is satisfactory. Directed by Olivier Megaton, an astoundingly idiotic name, it’s professionally (in other words, unexceptionally) directed. You never get a real sense of Istanbul, as the majority of the action takes place in a series of tight, back alley streets, but the few shots of the city skyline look enticing. The film moves along at a brisk pace, and it’s never boring. It’s just familiar. Like a half remembered memory of better times.
The main cast, including Neeson, Grace and Janssen (still looking good) are all solid. Neeson does his determined professional headkicker routine as we expect him to, but we get a sense he’s not as interested, not as committed, as he was the first time around. Importantly, the film lacks an effective, memorable villain. Šerbedžija, the go to guy for Eastern European bad guys, is never given the material or freedom to let loose. He delivers an effective speech that opens the film, but once the plot is in motion he never establishes himself as a dangerous enough threat that we would doubt the inevitability of Mills kicking his head in. His kidnapping plot seems a bit half-hearted, like he’s not fully convinced of it himself. Basically he’s a cop out villain that Besson and Kamen have dumped into the placeholder marked “villain” so that Mills will have something to punch.
Taken 2 is a disappointment. I enjoyed the first film a lot (even if I’d take the knife to the first 20 minutes), and was looking forward to more of the same. Unfortunately a number of contributing factors have resulted in a pale imitation of the original. A PG-13 rating has softened the first films sharp edges, Neesons performance is a little run of the mill(s), and the script is incredibly lazy. If they decide to make a Taken 3 (which is likely since the sequel has done well), I hope they take a look at what worked so well in the first film and take those elements and create something a little more original than this lazy retread.