Back in 2008 an unlikely action star was born in Liam Neeson, the stoic "very serious actor" (and occasional Jedi) who, with one film, transformed himself from a handsome character actor to a powerful leading man. Since "Taken" was released he has battled all manner of foe -- wolves, battleship aliens, terrorists, maybe a ghost, the rest of the cast of "The A-Team" -- and come out on top, snarling and probably smoking some kind of cigar.
Well, this week he returns to the movie that made him the six-foot-tall punching machine we love him to be. In "Taken 2," which costars original cast members Famke Janssen and Maggie Grace, the whole family is in jeopardy after the relatives of the two dozen people Neeson mowed down in the first one come looking for revenge. Bloody, bloody revenge. Luckily, Neeson has a particular set of skills…
(Warning: Spoilers Below)
Pro: It's "Taken 2"
When people have asked me over the last couple of weeks how "Taken 2" is, I shrug and say, "Well, it's 'Taken 2.'" By that I mean it's about as basic and sequential a sequel as they could make. The events are supposed to place fairly close to what happened in the first film (although Maggie Grace seems to be a surprisingly well adjusted teenager after almost being sold into Eastern European sex slavery), with some minor tweaks to the antagonistic dynamic Neeson had with Janssen (she's now divorced from her dickhead new husband). The family goes to Europe when disaster strikes, and both Neeson and Janssen are -- wait for it -- taken!
In a neat twist, Grace is the one who isn't abducted and forced to help her father escape and kill a bunch of people. If you like the first movie, you're going to get more of the same: Liam kicking ass, lots of jittery car chases and foot chases and shoot-outs (courtesy of the amazingly named Olivier Megaton, taking over from Pierre Morel). If you liked the first one, chances are you'll get the same rush of junky Euro-trash action movie endorphins this time around.
Con: It's "Taken 2"
The problem is that it's a little too similar. Sequels breed an air of predictability, but this time it crosses over to rote asininity. Also, there's a weird morality to the story that wasn't there in the first installment. With the first film, there was something vaguely cathartic about seeing Neeson killing a bunch of nebulously ethnic baddies. He was righteously saving his cute blonde daughter from some pretty severe horrors. But this time around, the villains are actually pretty justified in their actions and Neeson's craven brutality seems more vile and vicious. (And the fact that he brings the rest of his family into this seedy business is another matter altogether.)
Megaton, too, shows none of the stylistic flair that Morel displayed with the first film, offering blunt force trauma over the occasionally well-detailed work of the original. In short: it's been there, bashed in the head of that.
Pro: The First Weird "Drive" Reference
Right before everybody's nabbed, there's a shot of Grace, in an elevator, listening to a track from the "Drive" soundtrack. "Drive" soundtrack song? In an elevator? And the song is "A Real Hero," right before Grace assumes some pretty heroic responsibilities? Okay. It's a cute reference and the court of cool-ass cinema will allow it.
Con: The Second Weird "Drive" Reference
Objection! A little bit later in the movie, when Neeson is in full on brooding-before-a-killing-spree mode, they decide to play the Chromatics song "Tick of the Clock," which opened "Drive" and seems really out of place in "Taken 2." I'm under the school of thought where, if a movie uses a song really well, then that movie kind of owns that song. If another movie tries to use the same song, it's going to feel limp, unimpressive, and maybe even a bit like plagiarism. "Drive" came out about a year ago now and should still hold a very strong grip on that song, especially because it's so poorly utilized in "Taken 2" and makes the first use of a "Drive" soundtrack song seem hoary instead of clever.
Pro: It Is Still Pretty Exciting
Knowing how junky and commercial "Taken 2" is doesn't take away from how exciting it can occasionally be. There's a great car chase sequence that niftily riffs off the fact that, back in the states, Neeson is teaching his daughter how to drive (she's failed her license test three times because of her inabilities to parallel park). Elsewhere, Neeson unleashes his fury in some pretty spectacular ways, and the Eastern European location photography adds some much needed visual variety (although, handily, religion is never addressed). If you came across one of these sequences while channel surfing, it would be impossible to turn away afterwards, but we find it hard to imagine us ever watching this thing again from the beginning.
Con: It Looks Pretty Cheap (And Quite Obviously Was Rated-R)
According to the always-reliable internet, the production budget for "Taken 2" was somewhere in the $80 million range, which is shocking (SHOCKING), because it often looks like some bargain basement action cheapo. "The Raid: Redemption," from earlier this year, actually is some bargain basement action cheapo, but it packs more style and suspense into its brief running time than all of hugely expensive studio movie "Taken 2." It's bizarre. For that kind of money you'd think that they could have spent a little more on the computer generated explosions.
Also, just like the first movie, it's very apparent that this movie was originally much harder edged for the European audiences, something that would have easily garnered an R-rating in the states. The footage was restored for the home video release, and we can surely wait a more hardcore "Taken 2" on DVD and Blu-ray in the next few months