Back in January 2009, my friend Austin and I inaugurated our then-new Film Geek Central podcast by reviewing an action film from producer Luc Besson. It was not the first Besson-produced film of this type, nor would it be the last. Nevertheless, we predicted that this would wind up being a surprise hit. In TAKEN, we saw what everyone else did, a cool and assured action thriller with Liam Neeson giving a performance that was both thrilling and believable.
What might wind up irking most people about TAKEN 2 is not that the story is so similar to the previous film, but that the film itself is so different. But while this difference may turn many audience members off, does that discount its own merits as an action film?
The film picks up a couple of years later. Bryan Mills (Neeson) is still retired from the CIA, but taking the occasional security job. The relationship with his estranged wife and daughter has improved, but his rigidity still winds up putting people off. His daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) is trying to recover from her experience by having a normal life. His ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) is separating from her second husband and Bryan is taking the mature route of making sure she’s okay without overstepping his bounds. It’s very impressive the way TAKEN 2 handles these elements. They aren’t throwaways, but important to the plot and the growth of the characters.
Since he’s going to be finishing up a security job in Istanbul, he invites Kim and Lenore out to stay with him. Personally, I was surprised he would ever let his family outside the country again, but I guess he figures everything will be okay as long as he’s there. This is of course the first time our impeccable hero has ever been wrong.
The father of one of the men Neeson killed in rescuing his daughter vows revenge on Bryan and his family. In fact, the first scene of the film features a funeral for the victims of Bryan’s killing spree. It’s a big funeral, folks, and I’m not sure the filmmakers would appreciate the giggles it illicited from this critic. He rallies several of the Albanian gang members to his cause, deciding that the Istanbul trip is the perfect place to strike. Bryan and Lenore are both taken, but he manages to warn Kim first. The rest of the film involves Bryan trying to get free, protect his daughter and rescue his ex-wife from the vengeful Albanians (a term I will probably never tire of saying).
This is the main difference between the two films. The appeal of TAKEN was Neeson experiencing the very true emotion of a father protecting his daughter at all costs. He used his professionalism to coolly, efficiently and methodically hunt every one of the bad guys down. It was a quest. We enjoyed seeing Neeson dispatch everyone in his path with calm and ease. It led to a number of small action sequences that while entertaining never seemed quite as unrealistic as say your average RAMBO film.
Instead of taking place over a few days, TAKEN 2 largely takes place over the space of one afternoon. Instead of a series of small action sequences of increasing urgency, TAKEN 2 consists of one very long, extended action sequence. Once the bad guys are in pursuit, the chase is on and it doesn’t let up for the rest of the film. This is a very different approach to the material and anyone demanding a return to the same aesthetic of the original film is going to be disappointed. If TAKEN was DEATH WISH, TAKEN 2 is SPEED.
One can easily spot the differences by just looking at the body language Neeson applies. In the first film, he took down the villains in a calm, smooth manner. Here, his movements are more chaotic, more desperate and certainly more brutal (The violence in this PG-13 film is yet another case of the rules being different for studio films than they are for indies.). TAKEN featured one car chase at a construction yard. TAKEN 2 features at least two such scenes in broad daylight in downtown Istanbul. There are rooftop chases, grenades being lobbed in every conceivable direction and cars being crashed through diplomatic epicenters. People with no tolerance for shaky cam effects will probably hate at least the first half of this film, while I’m thankful that the quick editing was toned down for the second. While its predecessor pretended to be rooted somewhat in reality, TAKEN 2 throws all of that out the window. Moreover, scenes like a hand-to-hand brawl in the rotunda of a Turkish bath suggest that the film is well aware of its silliness. Neeson’s skills of deduction, impressive in the first film, are nearly superhuman here.
Another thing about the original TAKEN that was so much fun was that we really got a feel for how evil the bad guys were. These were people who destroyed families by kidnapping young girls, hooking them on smack, prostituting them until they withered away and died. Moreover, it called out the people who collaborated with them, the people who reaped profits either by facilitating the existence of the trade or turning a blind eye to it. TAKEN did an excellent job of giving us people that we really wanted to see hurt. When Neeson showed up and plowed through their ranks, he was almost like a divine enforcer. It was cathartic for the audience.
TAKEN 2 has no time for such things. They are the same villains from the first film, so we can assume they are up to the same nasty activities. But if the film stopped to show us some of the other things these guys were up to, it might break up the mood. Instead, TAKEN 2 wisely uses dialogue and exposition to bring up those who have been victimized and the consequences of those actions. It also somewhat amazingly brings up the consequences of seeking vengeance, that violence begets violence in a never-ending cycle.
While its predecessor was enjoyed by critics, TAKEN 2 is not getting the same praise. What’s more, it appears that Besson and Company don’t care. Director Olivier Megaton (COLUMBIANA, TRANSPORTER 3) throw all caution to the wind in creating a bombastic action film. I can’t imagine they didn’t realize they would alienate some of the fans of the original film. However, I think that a lot of people will come around to enjoying this film based on its own merits.
Personally, I found the film to be quite entertaining, which really seems to be all TAKEN 2 is going for. The different approach makes up for the sameness in the story. Yes, it’s Neeson trying to saved kidnapped family members, but the way it’s handled makes the film seem fresher than it actually is. It makes several interesting decisions – such as including Maggie Grace in some of the film’s most explosive action sequences – that I found refreshing. Do not take earlier contrasts with the original film as criticism. I enjoy calm cool thrillers, but there is also enough of a peasant in me to be thrilled watching COBRA.
There is no question that TAKEN 2 is dumber than the previous film, and it is perhaps not quite as good. However, that does not mean it is not an enjoyable action film in its own right. This is not the Next Big Thing. It is a fun Saturday matinée – nothing more, nothing less, nothing else required. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sensuality.
– Running Time: 1hr. 31mins.