Review: “Taken 2”

Filmmaker Luc Besson has made a living over the past decade turning himself into the white and French answer to Tyler Perry. But whereas Perry built his films on exaggerated melodrama and hillbilly drag queen antics, Besson is all about producing economical European-set Hollywood-esque action films. Made for a quite reasonable $15-40 million, each usually involves at least one car chase, several fist fights, and a dozen stunts that defy all the basic tenets of classical mechanics. They also often boast a recognisable name in the lead, a pouty European model as a love interest, a fairly basic premise and some cut-rate computer graphics.

Many of them are terrible, such as this year’s “Lockout” or last year’s “Colombiana”, but every now and then this shake-and-bake formula will cook up a surprisingly entertaining piece of fluff such as the first “The Transporter” or the idiotic silliness of “From Paris with Love”. One such success was 2008’s “Taken”, the story of a retired CIA agent whose daughter is kidnapped by sex traffickers in Paris. He sets out to get her back, killing everyone remotely connected along the way.

Playing like a less verbose and adrenalised pseudo-remake of David Mamet’s under-rated Val Kilmer thriller “Spartan”, what sold it was star Liam Neeson’s committed performance and a slick directing job by Pierre Morel. Defying all expectation, the $25 million film became a runaway hit and earned nine times its budget worldwide – thus green lighting this unplanned sequel. Unfortunately, much like “Transporter 2”, this follow-up is utter nonsense that suffers from textbook sequel-itis – everything is bigger, louder, dumber and duller.

Shifting the action to Istanbul and putting the focus more on the family dynamic this time out, the story sees the relatives of the men Neeson killed in the first film executing their revenge against him by trying to take him, his wife and his daughter out for a fun day of torture and murder. Cue a rehash of the first film with Neeson turning the tables on his kidnappers and ultimately whooping ass, this time with the help of his daughter (Maggie Grace).

The first film had a streamlined approach and plot with the focus entirely on Neeson. We the audience were in his shoes as he moved up the chain of nameless thugs to find his daughter before she disappears into the sex trafficking system – a fate so vile even death would be a kinder outcome. There was a neck cracking, spleen smashing visceral energy to it that’s just absent here. Made with a PG-13 rating in mind rather than conceived as an R-rated effort that was later trimmed to appease the MPAA like the first film was, the action is safe enough this time out to take your toddler along.

Neeson once again proves the reliable core, but the steel-eyed determination isn’t there this time. Not helping is the shift of focus which now alternates between the various members of the Mills family and Rade Å erbedžija’s flat villain. Neeson also spends a good portion of the film chained up in a basement, leaving things up to Maggie Grace to save the day – why Besson has such a raging erection for her I can’t fathom as I’ve yet to see the “Lost” actress give a performance I like. She’s not helped by a script which turns her character into a stunt driver, even though she’s failed two driving tests.

The normally decent Famke Janssen phones it in as well, spending most of her time tut-tutting Neeson’s character over his attitude to his daughter’s boyfriend or crying at the first sign of trouble. There’s a few other actors but they leave less impression than the random carpet merchants wandering around in the background. Director Olivier Megaton’s use of Istanbul mostly consists of anonymous gritty alleyways intermixed with a couple of wide shots of the Hagia Sophia and the Bosphorus waterways in the distance to showcase us being somewhere exotic.

At a fairly lean 91 minutes one can’t really call “Taken 2” bloated, yet so much of it seems like useless fat that could’ve been replaced with a decent plot and maybe some actual thrills. Even big fans of the first one will be surprised by the lethargy and lack of imagination on offer, for mindless nonsense it’s incredibly flat and tedious. The replacing of Morel as director with the decidedly less talented Megaton is partly to blame, but more is Besson’s need to create this follow-up without any real justification other than the first one making money. Born from the most cynical reasons and made at nearly double the cost, is it any wonder it turned out less than half as engaging as its progenitor?