It’s telling that Taken 2 director Olivier Megaton started as a graffiti artist before he became a filmmaker, because you often stumble out of his movies in a daze feeling lightheaded and dizzy, as if you just spent the past 90 minutes huffing fumes. After the disastrous Transporter 3 and the critically reviled Columbiana, it’s shocking that Megaton was given another chance to direct an action picture, and Taken 2 is just as good as that resume would indicate. Which means, of course, that it’s terrible.
Let’s get something out of the way first: the original Taken was not a brilliant movie. The catharsis we got from watching Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills, a dedicated father, overcome any obstacle to retrieve his teenage daughter from sexual slavery was a much-needed relief from seeing many real-life stories not end as well on nightly newscasts. Plus, it was fun to watch an aging Neeson rejuvenate his career as a badass leading man. But the script, from French action filmmaking icon Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, was shoddy at times, relying on a few too many coincidences and suffering from a case of too much buildup and not enough payoff by the end. Pierre Morel’s direction and the fun of seeing Neeson play detective carried the film, and if nothing else, Neeson’s memorable monologue to his daughter’s captors on the phone was immediately launched into the zeitgeist and has remained there ever since.
But from the opening credits onward, Megaton never does anything to make this film his own, and instead relies on every action movie cliche in the book to tell his story. Even the opening credits are an attempt to rip off the late Tony Scott, but while Scott’s shaky style always had a point (whether to illustrate the fragility of youth or blind rage of revenge in Man on Fire, or humanity’s touchy relationship with technology in Deja Vu), Megaton uses it explicitly for aesthetics. I wouldn’t have a problem with that if he executed his shots with some talent, but combining a blink-and-you-miss-it editing style with what ultimately feels like lazy Steadicam work doesn’t do the audience any favors.
Also not doing us any favors is the script, which is far worse than the original. After the events of the last movie, Bryan Mills has spent more time with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), mostly in the form of teaching her how to drive (foreshadowing!) and spying on her new boyfriend. When his ex-wife’s (Famke Janssen) marriage falls apart and her husband inexplicably cancels her overseas trip with Kim, they decide to surprise Bryan in Istanbul, where he’s hanging out doing some freelance protection work. But the family and gang members of the dudes responsible for the sex ring from the first movie haven’t forgotten Mills’ face, and they’re out for revenge. Kim decides to stay at the hotel to give her parents some alone time in the hopes of rekindling their romance (why the hell would she go anywhere alone after what happened to her the first time, especially in an unfamiliar foreign country?!?), and now it’s the parents’ turn to be taken, kicking off a series of ludicrous plot points and getting the movie started.
The movie has some potentially interesting reversals with the parents being snatched and especially the fact that the father of one of the guys Neeson killed in the first one is essentially the Liam Neeson of Albania (Mission: Impossible II’s Rade Serbedzija), simply out to right a wrong done to one of his kin. But the film is far too stupid to do anything compelling with these dichotomies, instead falling back on action cliches to move the story forward. During a sequence in which Neeson is trapped and handcuffed in a basement, he pulls a secret phone from his pants and calls Kim, having her hurl a grenade into a parking garage and blow up a car so he can hear the sound and get his bearings. And that’s one of the most tolerable plot points. Another sees a hooded Neeson tossed in the trunk memorizing every passing noise (taking a page straight out of the Sneakers playbook), except that this sequence goes on for what feels like five full minutes and Neeson must memorize dozens of sounds in a row for this to be effective. (He later retraces his steps without missing a beat.)
The film is littered with these kinds of idiotic moments. We never get to see Neeson do any sleuthing, interrogating, or even anything half as memorable as the phone scene from the first film, and when he and Kim literally destroy the U.S. Embassy gates following one of the most grating car chases of the past twenty years, I pretty much checked out. One thing Taken 2 does share with the first movie, though, is the bizarre anticlimactic final battles. If you’re going to spend the whole movie building up to something, I’d suggest making those moments at least a tiny bit better than some of the buildup. Bryan Mills may have a very particular set of skills, but it’s clear that the only one Olivier Megaton possesses is the ability to kill franchises. Until next time…