These people are never leaving the house again.
Forgiving Taken 2’s racism, button-pushing and sheer ludicrousness isn’t easy. It espouses real-life covert tactics in the service of a road-runner cartoon, in which the swarthy forces of foreign darkness bounce resolutely off of Liam Neeson’s unstoppable dad-on-a-mission. That makes it an acquired taste, to say the least, and the more self-serious filmgoer is fully justified in turning up his nose. All of that, however, is part and parcel of this series: a rehash of the old Death Wish-style revenge pictures and uninterested in anything but truly horrible people getting killed in creative ways. It’s not good, but with the right sort of mindset, it can be cheerfully endured.
Liam Neeson deserves at least some of the credit. Having all but reinvented his star persona with the first Taken, he can sell the implacable bad-ass like nobody else. He also does well with the overprotective father routine, a dynamic that the first film oversold but which this one weaves into a more balanced character. This time, he’s more or less the cause of all the trouble… or at least his one-man-swath of bloody vengeance in the first film is. One of his victims – specifically, the one he electrocuted while strapped to a chair – has a father with a gaggle of greasy minions and a plan to settle the score. So when Neeson’s Bryan Mills takes his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) and daughter (Maggie Grace) to Istanbul, they find a special welcome party waiting for them.
The set-up works extremely well, with Neeson and Janssen establishing a fragile dynamic between their characters and the screenwriters positing reasonable emotional developments based on the first film. The wounds of their long-departed romance still linger, but they’ve grown awkwardly closer and both of them still keep their daughter at the forefront of their minds. Once they arrive in Istanbul, the rising action raises expectations even further. It establishes a neat reversal of the first movie where Neeson and Janssen get nabbed and Grace has to help her father break free (while dodging sinister thugs in to process, nach). In the midst of it, we get some cool espionage tidbits like how to gauge distances when you’re blindfolded, and how to hide a massive briefcase full of guns in the hotel room next door.
And then – at about the time the grenades start going off – it all takes a turn for the goofy. The villains conveniently allow Neeson to make phone calls to his daughter, tie him up next to jagged chunks of metal, and otherwise make life extremely easy for him at every opportunity. Grace does well, for her part, but she’s awfully peppy for a girl sold into sexual slavery just a short time before, and while the film pays lip service to her healing process, I doubt she’d be flouncing around a strange pool in a bikini anytime soon.
Director Olivier Megaton adds further head scratchers in the form of strangely absent police officers and the like: leaps of logic that any film like this requires to survive. They wouldn’t matter but for Taken 2’s insistence on getting those little details down… thus providing some plausibility for Neeson’s superheroics. Except there is no plausibility here. Just righteous anger, obvious stereotypes and a deck fundamentally stacked against the bad guys from the get-go. Add to that the film’s grotesque race baiting, and the prospect of a legitimately good film quickly vanishes.
Having said that, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t occupy my attention. Megaton has steadily improved in his ability to deliver solid action scenes, and the location shooting in Turkey makes excellent use of Istanbul’s narrow streets. As point-and-click mayhem goes, it delivers the goods with lean, muscular energy. Neeson becomes the straw that serves the drink, so resolute and devoted in his delivery that he sells his character even when the script takes a turn for the preposterous.
Where does that leave Taken 2? It depends on how you look at it. If you go in set against it, it won’t give you a plausible reason to change your mind – and in the full measure of things, it’s really quite appalling. But if the down-and-dirty thrills of the first film struck a chord with you, you won’t regret taking a double dip, even if you hate yourself in the morning. Neeson previously starred in The Grey, which is the best film of the year so far, and Battleship, which is the worst. Let’s put Taken 2 right in the middle of them: not good enough to recommend, but not nearly as bad as its detractors maintain.