Directed by Olivier Megaton
Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, and Famke Janssen
MPAA: PG-13 – For Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and Some Sensuality]
The first Taken film was silly and kinda dumb, yes, but it was also smartly executed. The casting of Liam Neeson was a rather genius move, the action was very well-shot and staged, there were very clear stakes that felt high enough to milk out some tension, and there was even some light but still notable social commentary on the dangers of sex-trafficking, a topic that very few mainstream American films ever put to light. Plus, it was just a damn fun time. It wasn’t high-art, or even an action classic along the lines of Die Hard, but you’d be hard-pressed to not find some enjoyment in it.
So yeah, it was certainly a good film, but it was also a big surprise at the box-office, gaining success through constant and insanely positive word-of-mouth and transforming Liam Neeson from “that guy who played Oscar Schindler” into the biggest action star of the moment. So, studios being studios, they did what they typically did in the wake of such success: Try catching lightning in a bottle a second time, with sequels.
I wasn’t as inherently against the idea of a Taken sequel as plenty of people were. Sure, it seemed very improbably and unlikely, but I didn’t hate the idea either. However, whoever it was in charge made a move for the worst that pretty much doomed the project the second it was greenlit: They gave the movie to a different director from the first one. Olivier Megaton (Which is so clearly fake; his real name is Olivier Fontana) has directed two action films before this one: The dull Transporter 3 and Colombiana which I haven’t seen but have heard plenty of negative buzz around. What inspired the choice of having him direct? I have no idea. The only thing I could think of is that he’s possibly a friend of whoever’s in charge of the franchise, because it’s clear that the man knows nothing about making a decent action film. Taken 2 is simply shocking in how ineptly made it is. The only surprise in this sequel is how such a big-budget film made by supposed “professionals” ended up being so shoddily made.
It’s a real shame, because the seeds of interesting developments in this sequel are here. You know how many action movie protagonists are able to just get away with flat-out murdering hundreds of people with no repercussions. Taken 2‘s main hook cleverly answers that by wondering what would happen if all of that killing from the first movie ended up biting Liam Neeson in the ass. Sadly, however, this idea is simply just set-up for what is otherwise the same exact film as the first, but with less stakes, less scale, and even less action. Considering the idea of a sequel is supposed to be to “expand” upon the original, it’s insane to me how much Taken 2 feels like such a downgrade.
This time, it’s both Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) and his wife who are being taken (Just had to work in the title into both the plot and the dialogue, did ya, lads) by a band of ruthless criminals who want Mills to pay for all the killing he did in the first film. They’re led by Murad (Rade Serbedzija), who was the father of a man that Mills actually tortured and electrocuted to death to get information from. He’s also one of the most underwhelming, least threatening antagonists I’ve seen in recent memory. This isn’t even the fun kind of bad, where he’s absolutely ridiculous. He pretty much does absolutely nothing throughout the entire movie except boss his henchmen around. Even in the final confrontation, he doesn’t even do any fighting or shooting, with the actual final battle–without giving too much away–being between Mills and one of the many lackeys. There wasn’t even really a central villain in the first film, yet that had more hate-able antagonists than this dud. Even the way he’s ultimately defeated is totally pathetic. (No, “the bad guy dies at the end” is not a spoiler).
As for Liam Neeson, he’s not bad by any stretch, but he’s clearly phoning it in. Literally one of his lines in the film is “I’m tired of all this”, and I’m starting to believe that that wasn’t really a line so much as Neeson just speaking his thoughts aloud on set. He still does the smooth, authoritative dialogue, but this time there just isn’t any soul put into it. I hate playing the comparing game, but in the first film, when Neeson has that phone call with the kidnappers of his daughter, there’s a gravitas and intensity lurking in that cold, authoritive performance. Here, it’s all cold and authoritive, without the intensity or vulnerability that makes him truly gripping.
Also, one of the oddest things about this sequel is how scaled back it is in scope in comparison to the original. The first film was set within the span of many days as Neeson hops from location to location to find the kidnappers of his daughter. In Taken 2, however, the majority of the film takes place in the span of a single day in a single city. Like I said before, considering the point of sequels is to expand on the original, I fail to see the logic in doing the exact opposite here. It just makes everything feel so minor and unimportant. If the first film was Neeson killing a bunch of dudes, this sequel is just him swatting the flies that are hovering around their corpses by comparison.
There is one interesting development in this sequel however, and that’s the role of Maggie Grace, Neeson’s on-screen daughter. It’s nice to see her character transform from the damsel of the first film into an active participant in the action in this one. It shows that there’s actually some sort of progression going on in this sequel, and displays something of a “character growth” for her. Hell, you can even consider her a sidekick to Neeson, albeit more vulnerable and plucky. But hey, that’s a good thing considering they’ve made Neeson’s character a freaking invincible robot in this film, so she allows the film to have some sort of audience surrogate to relate to.
There’s actually one scene that’s actually clever in how completely and utterly ludicrous it is. The scene has Neeson giving his daughter instructions on how to locate him. This involves Grace literally throwing hand-grenades left and right around the rooftops of Istanbul and Neeson listening to the echoes to hear how close she is. Stupid, yes, but the movie plays it completely straight in an amusingly smart way to make it actually kind of cool to watch.
Despite these small touches I liked, they can’t distract from the biggest issue of the film: The director. A truly horrendous action film plot can be saved by likable characters and action sequences that are both fun to watch and easy to comprehend. Just look at Fast Five. Taken 2‘s action displays neither of these traits. The camera shakes with reckless abandon, which wouldn’t be a problem if these shots were held for more than 10 seconds. This is the same problem the first Expendables movie had where every shot of the film’s action scenes literally lasts less than 10 seconds (I even counted through many of them). This makes many of the character’s actions inconsistent at many points, as it becomes increasingly harder to keep track of who’s who and what they’re all supposed to be doing.
The most egregious example of this is a scene where Neeson is checking a bunch of doors to see if bad guys are waiting on the other side. One shot shows him pointing his gun at an empty bathroom, and then it cuts immediately to Neeson walking in a hallway, not even showing him move on from that room or transitioning to him walking in the hallway. It feels less like cutting action and more like cutting corners. It ends up being incredibly distracting, making me ask questions I shouldn’t even be asking like, “Wait, how did he get there? When did he get there? Is this even the same hallway?” It felt like the film cut to a parallel dimension where Neeson wasn’t looking into rooms and instead was just cautiously walking through hallways. That’s how jarring and inconsistent the editing is.
And this doesn’t just apply to the action scenes. Even the plot set-up scenes in the beginning are cut into nothingness with shots lasting less than 10 seconds. It’s a clear case of the filmmakers wanting to have their cake and eat it too. They want to establish the characters and plot, and make time for things to be set-up like the first film was quite good at doing in its first act, yet they also want all of that plot and character stuff to get out of the way as soon as possible lest the masses get “bored” from the constant talking. There’s even one scene in the beginning where Neeson is having a barbecue with some work-buddies before heading off to Istanbul and it felt like it lasted for less than a minute before cutting to the next scene. Everything about the editing is so erratic, incomprehensible, and rushed, you start to wonder if the filmmakers were told by studios that it couldn’t be a second longer than 90 minutes.
It’s poorly shot and composed too. Not only does the camera shake like the DP was playing a nasty drinking game before arriving on set, but the color palette is just gray on top of gray with a few hints of brown here and there, making things even harder to tell apart. It honestly made me feel sorry for the fight choreographer, who clearly set up a bunch of elaborate hand-to-hand fight sequences that the audience will never be able to appreciate or understand.
All in all, it’s just incredibly boring. I wouldn’t call it completely terrible by any stretch, but it’s such a very clear example of the “cynical cash-grab sequel” where absolutely no effort has been put into it because the filmmakers know quite clearly that it’s going to make a bunch of money. And considering it’s already made $40-50 million in the US alone, they were right, so I guess I’m a bit late in recommending that you avoid this movie in theaters at all costs. However, I can at least say that Frankenweenie is quite good. Give that one your money, at the very least. At least that movie was made with effort and care put into it.
Final Verdict: Taken 2 is just poorly made in just about every aspect of it. Liam Neeson isn’t even trying anymore, the action is horrendously shot and edited, and everything just feels downgraded from the original film. A few interesting ideas on paper, but in practice, it’s pretty much the same movie. If you really need a badass Liam Neeson fix, just re-watch the original instead. It’s probably playing on FX right now as you’re reading this.
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See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to call the dry cleaners. If you do not thoroughly wash these socks, I will find you…and I will kill you.