Sunday, October 7, 2012

Grudge Report: TAKEN 2

Taken 2, like Taken before it, delivers on its promise. These movies can do so simply by not promising all that much to begin with. These are nothing more than well-made junk, advertising and providing relentless forward momentum, parental vengeance, and Liam Neeson’s grade-A gravitas. The first time around, his ex-CIA agent punched, kicked, shot and shocked his way through the Parisian underground after his vacationing daughter (Maggie Grace) found herself kidnapped by human traffickers. The movie didn’t have much in the way of plot or character, but it was short and fast, blessed with an unstoppable force of a protagonist in Neeson, whose every growl and scowl landed strongly. He used his height and seriousness to create his menacing demeanor. It doesn’t hurt that he also got to rumble out an instantly iconic action movie monologue, one that finds him calmly, gravely informing his daughter’s kidnappers that he has “a particular set of skills…” warning them of swift retribution that sure enough comes to pass.

Now, in the grand tradition of Die Hard 2 and Speed 2 and Death Wish 2, a movie about a more or less regular person in an extraordinary action-thriller scenario is followed up by a movie about that same exact regular person ending up in a shockingly similar scenario. This time, Neeson, vacationing in Istanbul with his daughter and ex-wife (Famke Janssen), finds himself taken. He recognizes this inevitability soon enough to call his daughter back at the hotel and tell her the bad news in a pale echo of the first movie’s great monologue. “Your mother…and I…are about to be…taken.” This time the daughter has to rescue the father, who in turn must rescue his ex-wife. He wiggles out of his restraints soon enough that most of the movie he gets to fight his way to his wife and daughter while trying to take out the threats in between.

But who are the kidnappers this time? They’re none other than aggrieved friends and family of some of the bad guys Neeson maimed, killed, or otherwise hurt in the first film. Led by Rade Serbedzija as the scowling father of the guy Neeson electrocuted, this band of anonymous vengeful others are out for Neeson’s blood. I like the idea of a sequel to a movie of mostly consequence-free violence basing its entire plot around providing consequences to that film’s actions. That this movie continues and expands upon its predecessor’s slight case of xenophobia, in which all foreigners are both undeveloped characters and mindless plot-device aggressors, is disappointing. The film is filled with stage-setting shots that linger on burqas and mosques while the sound of an unseen muezzin filters through the background noise and the villains make their way towards our protagonists. Instead of using its locale as a picturesque backdrop for action, the film feels like nothing more than cheap exoticism as code for threat in ways the feel awfully tired.

Still, the grudge-driven plot seems fitting, even if writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen ultimately have once again used their narrative hook only to provide quick, satisfying bursts of action sequences sprinkled with a moderate amount of connective tension. Director Olivier Megaton (with a name like that, you hardly have to go on to describe him as a French action director) films the car chases, shootouts, explosions and hand-to-hand combat with a slick competency (and with strangely sanitized PG-13 brutality). The benefit of the movie being little more than one long chase scene is that there’s no wasted time and there’s no reason to feel cheated. It is exactly what it wants to be and no more than what little it promises. And there’s still some time for occasional moments of mild invention, like when Neeson manages to call his daughter and walk her through the details of using a map, a shoestring, a pen, and a grenade to pinpoint his location.

Taken 2 doesn’t live up to the modest surprise of its predecessor. For one thing, the novelty is gone. Neeson’s character is hyper-competent, so much so that surprise is not really in the cards. When the situation is at its most dire and he tells his wife that everything is going to be okay, of course I believed him. And that’s really all that matters here. The movie is dependent entirely upon how willing the audience is to see Neeson run through the streets of a foreign city, fighting bad guys every step of the way in order to restore safety to his family. As a sequel, narratively speaking it’s an afterthought. As a movie unto itself, there’s just not much to it beyond what little it promises. But I guess that’s the point.

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