There’s diminishing returns, and then there’s “Taken 2,” the next, and probably last installment of the “Taken” franchise. Of course, it’s a piece of a whole, only the latest in the body of work from producer Luc Besson (again sharing screenwriting duties with Robert Mark Kamen). But Besson’s intriguing late-career activity as a producer of savvy action trash reaches it’s nadir in this monotone punch-fest that is tirelessly rote in it’s stubborn desire to refuse any sense of ingenuity.
The first “Taken” pirouetted on the idea of a Dad Fantasy, that being no one you know can be trusted, foreigners have the worst intentions, and Daddy Knows Best. Milking the same reservoir that entertained audiences in the “Meet The Parents” series, where the overprotective patriarch played by Robert DeNiro would not stop henpecking his son-in-law, “Taken” was easily more amusing than any moment in the 'Parents' trilogy, simply by playing it straight-faced: your loving dad was right, is always right, and now is going to prove his worth by saving your ass. Invasion of privacy be damned. If you’re thrown off by a comparison between “Taken” and “Meet The Parents,” consider that both feature tough guy leading men as their anal father-figures, who are openly hostile towards a daughter who appears to be old enough to know better, and have a decidedly sinister background in law enforcement. Though, only one of these films is actually funny.
“Taken 2” picks up a couple of years after the last film, and director Olivier Megaton overextends his reach by assuming audiences warmed to Pierre Morel’s original film, and would enjoy this followup, because of a fondness for the characters. It’s a catch-22 -- the market dictates the first film should warrant a sequel, but aside from Liam Neeson in action, “Taken” earned its keep because of the premise, right there in the title. To follow Neeson’s unflappable Bryan Mills on another adventure not related to the first film would risk losing the “Taken” brand name. “The Transporter” never had this problem.
Ergo, since the word “Taken” is in the title, and because we know this is a sequel, we should be ready to jump in. Instead, the tension between Bryan and ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen, deserving better) is rehashed without being deepened. She’s naturally attracted to this Irish asskicker who has already proven his bonafides as a protector and a provider for their daughter, but his love seems to be exclusively reserved for his young pride and joy Kim (Maggie Grace). It's to the point where, the film unintentionally suggests, she has been infantilized so heavily that despite clearly being in her mid-twenties, she is struggling in driving lessons and sneaking away from daddy to make out with boys.
Of course, despite Bryan’s separation from the family, no one bats an eyelash when he opts to sub in for Lenore's somewhat estranged offscreen husband when he cancels their own vacation plans. This being “Taken 2,” their rendezvous is slated for sunny, beautiful, family-friendly Istanbul (where Bryan just happens to have been hired for a contract gig), where they explore the shops and swim in the hotel pool. Soon Mills realizes that he’s being watched, and eventually, he’s been, ahem, Taken Too.
The culprit is a soft-spoken killer (Rade Serbedzija) who makes no apologies for his son, who died at Mills’ hands in the first film for the crime of participating in an international sex trafficking ring. The idea of Mills’ crows coming home to roost is a decent one, and suggests Besson knew exactly what he was doing when he allowed Mills to wage a dead-serious rampage across France in the first picture. Also clever is a bit where, in order to triangulate his position, Bryan instructs his daughter to strategically throw triggered grenades, destroying infrastructure so that the Americans can essentially, in a grander sense, know where they are. These moments of commentary suggest that at one point, certain people weren’t asleep at the wheel.
However, here comes Olivier Megaton, he of “The Transporter 3,” now primed to kill yet another franchise. The otherwise delightfully-named Megaton stages a number of set pieces reminiscent of the first film as if he were a drunken karaoke participant crooning along to an artist’s lone hit, sapping them of immediacy for the sake of crossing requirements off a list. His camerawork during fight sequences is similarly graceless and arbitrary -- one can tell exactly what is happening, given Megaton’s excessive coverage, and there’s no sense of momentum or immediacy given by the added violence of a shaking image, only a casual embrace of visual chaos that contributes nothing to the paper-thin story.
Neeson, to his credit, never waves in his dedication to his craft, which is why people seem to forget his resume is littered with more b-movies than the prestige pictures with which he was once associated. His skin weathered, his height suddenly giving him a slightly hunchbacked curve, his smile as pained as ever, Neeson is a natural at this grimacing protector role. It’s not a surprise that he most resembles an older Charles Bronson in “Taken 2,” as both found the enthusiasm to soldier on in the action genre well into their old age. Bronson had a bit more patience with these films: after this, it’s doubtful Neeson will. [D+]