Not many massive hits of the last few years came out of the blue in the way that "Taken" did. The Luc Besson-produced actioner starring Liam Neeson had performed decently internationally, but clearly hopes weren't especially high: Neeson hadn't toplined a hit on his own for at least a decade, if ever, and the film was snuck into theaters months after it played in the rest of the world, on Super Bowl weekend 2009, the place where action movies go to die.
And yet the film went on to make $25 million in its first weekend despite the competition from football, and went on to gross $145 million in the U.S. alone (nearly six times its opening weekend, the sign of a film with real legs), launching the sub-genre that we like to call Neesploitation ("Unknown," "The Grey," the upcoming "Non-Stop"). It took a few years to get a sequel going, but "Taken 2" finally hit theaters this weekend, and again proved to be a smash hit, making $50 million, the biggest three-day gross since "The Dark Knight Rises" in July.
So 20th Century Fox (who financed the new film, unlike the original, which they just distributed) have a new insta-franchise, right? Well, not necessarily, according to the cast and crew. On the Empire Podcast, Liam Neeson said, of the possibility of a third film: "I don't think it's going to happen, I can't see a possible scenario, that audiences wouldn't go 'Oh, come on. She's taken again?' " before adding, wryly, "Unless we do one where I give her away."
And director Olivier Megaton and producer Luc Besson seem to concur, with Megaton telling Cinema Blend: "We want to work with Liam again on another movie, and the priority is to do something else, another movie. I don't think that it will go on for 'Taken 3,' I don't see the point. The second one, it was fine, we closed the books. Even Luc [Besson] or Robert [Mark Kamen, the screenwriter]-- if this one's a success too, maybe they're going to think about it, money is money for them. But after it will be very difficult to ask Liam to be back again. The logic of his character has ended for this one, for me."
It's hard to look at "Taken 2" and think that the creative juices are still flowing; the film's a lifeless, less competent retread of the first movie (which was never that great anyway) clearly only made as a cash-in. And Neeson was seemingly not that keen to reprise the role in the first place, with negotiations going down to the wire. But a $120 million opening weekend haul that signals that the film is likely to exceed the box office of the original probably changes things. After all, these films don't cost all that much (the original was $25 million, the sequel around $45, much of which likely went on a bigger paycheck for Neeson), and are thus hugely profitable, and if we can make it to a fifth "Die Hard" movie, we're sure creative (or in this case, not especially creative) writers can come up with more excuse for Brian Mills to utilize his particular set of skills, particularly given a B+ CinemaScore that suggests that audiences was happier with the retread than critics were.
We're sure that Fox will be able to throw enough money at Besson to encourage him to move forward on a third film, but if worst comes to worst, and Neeson is adamant about staying away from future films, where does that leave the series? One possibility floated by Neeson is that Maggie Grace's useless aspiring pop-singer daughter character (who gets more to do in the sequel) might take up the mantle, with Neeson taking on a supporting role, or being absent altogether.
The trouble here? Maggie Grace is not actually a name on which you could likely sell the movie. Even the most fervent admirers of the franchise find Grace's 28-playing-19 charms to be a dead weight in the series, and the failure of Besson's "Lockout" (which saw Grace in a similar role, in a movie sold as "Taken" in space) suggests that her presence alone is hardly enough to bring in audiences. The "Taken" name would obviously help, but a Grace-starring solo entry is only likely to do slightly better than a version of the franchises that toplined Leland Orser's character.
But what about recasting? When Neeson expressed reluctance to shoot the film on Besson's accelerated schedule, the trades reported that discussions had begun about bringing in a different tough guy to fill the role, with Mickey Rourke, Sean Bean, Jason Isaacs, Ray Winstone and even Ralph Fiennes tossed around as possibilities to step in for Neeson. Was it a "Louie"-style negotiating tactic? Yeah, probably. But it does indicate that the producers are prepared to the 'Taken" name further if and when Neeson decides to move on to pastures new. If he rules himself definitively out of the third movie, expect to see similar names floated. Perhaps more viable would be a prequel, focusing on Bryan Mills' days as a non-retired special ops guy -- a chance to bring in a younger audience while retaining the basic fanbase.
But could the producers expect similar success with a new lead? "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "The Bourne Legacy" each demonstrated this summer that it's possible to elongate a franchise with a new lead, but they also showed that you're likely to take a box office hit if that's the case -- both films were the lowest grossing entries of their franchises to date (even if 'Legacy' beat out 'Identity' internationally).
Would a Neeson-free "Taken" make even less of an impact? It's clear from the modest grosses of other Neesploitation pictures like "Unknown" that the base appeal of the "Taken" series sees the star as the main draw. Meanwhile, the underperfomance of other Besson-produced actioners like "From Paris With Love" demonstrates that it's not necessarily the idea of any old aging tough guy punching foreign villains that brings in audiences, it's Neeson, in that role, with that set up.
We suspect that what'll happen is that Fox will unload a money truck on the front lawn of Besson, Neeson and co, and they'll suddenly find that the premise does stretch to a third installment after all. But rest assured that the studio will be prepping a Plan B just in case, although we suspect that they'll face diminishing returns from here on out.