Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Director: Olivier Megaton
Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Rade Serbedzija, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, D.B. Sweeney, Luke Grimes
Running Time: 91 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
It isn't difficult to see how Taken went on to become such a critical and commercial success when it was released with little fanfare and even fewer expectations in early 2008. At the time we all knew Liam Neeson was a great actor but had little clue he'd be so believable as an action star. He was playing a quietly intense man thrust into a situation that at least seemed at the time to be out of his control. Everything about it seemed fresh. The kidnapping. The crime. The fight scenes. The grittiness. The shocking sight of the sixty-something Neeson kicking ass for an hour and a half. In an era of overblown effects, here was this no-nonsense, bare bones action thriller that knew exactly what it was supposed to do and did it. It didn't reinvent the wheel but it sure was a lot of fun, with director/co-writer Luc Besson somehow pulling this all off within the confines of a PG-13 rating. Capitalizing on its success, Neeson's played a variation on the role so many times since (even taking it to more dramatically tragic heights in The Grey) that you'd figure the novelty's worn off by now. And to an extent it has, but that doesn't mean it doesn't still work.
Taken 2 plays out almost exactly how you'd expect the sequel to Taken play out, only a bit crazier. Rumors of its inferiority to the original are greatly exaggerated. It does some things better than its predecessor and others not as well but at the end of the day it all evens out. Its two biggest attributes just might be its off-the-wall silliness and an increased focus on the supporting characters, one of whom nearly steals the movie out from under Neeson. Those who don't enjoy this follow-up or think it fails to recapture the spirit of the original should probably go back and ask themselves whether the first film was really as strong as they thought. This nearly equals it.
This action logically picks up where the last film left off as the body count ex CIA operative Bryan (Neeson) left behind in rescuing his kidnapped teen daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) from a sex traffiking ring comes back to haunt him. Now Murad (Rade Serbedzija), Albanian crime boss and father of one of Bryan's victims, is out to avenge his son's death and won't stop until he pays. That opportunity comes when the emotionally scarred Kim and her now separated mother Lenore (Famke Janssen) surprise Bryan by joining him on his vacation in Istanbul. But by the time he starts to suspect they're being followed it's too late, as he and his ex-wife are taken captive. Now it's up to Kim to use her own resourcefulness and follow her dad's very specific instructions to find and rescue them without being captured again herself.
There's a little more set-up this time around as much of the first half hour is spent establishing a new family dynamic despite little time presumably passing since the conclusion of the last film's events. The formerly hostile relationship between Bryan and Lenore is noticeably more civil with even a possible chance of reconciliation while Kim struggles to pass her twice failed driver's test and hide a new boyfriend from her overprotective dad. It's kind of a neat reversal to have Bryan placed in a rare position of vulnerability and having to rely on his daughter to rescue him and her mother. It also succeeds in giving Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen twice as much to do this time around and neither disappoints in their heavily expanded roles.
Despite being the one "taken," Bryan's still pulling the strings, sometimes quite literally, as in the film's most uproarious scene when he gives Kim ridiculously complicated instructions to finding their whereabouts that involves a shoestring, a map and her throwing live grenades all over the city. Laugh all you want but you can't tell me it isn't inventively original or that director Olivier Megaton (taking over for Besson) and Grace don't fully commit to this weirdly entertaining sequence with everything they have. Of course, this isn't to say Neeson's playing some helpless victim here, eventually dishing out just as many beatings as he did the last time around, if not more. If there's anything to complain about it's that he may as well qualify as a superhero rather than a former CIA agent. And yet Neeson still somehow sells it, again giving us front row seats to see an action master at work.
One of the more unintentionally hilarious elements of the original film was nearly 30-year-old Maggie Grace's performance as the 17 going on 12 year-old teen. Who can forget "daddy's little girl" getting a new pony for her birthday and awkwardly running to her father with arms flailing? It was a really bizarre take on the character, making me wonder whether Grace was just overcompensating for the huge age difference or the portrayal was intentionally serving some larger symbolic purpose in the story (like the loss of her virginal innocence). Her work here is a complete 180 from that as she's not only completely believable as a reluctant teenager still emotionally wrestling with her ordeal, but as a makeshift action heroine who's learned to run since the last film. And this time the movie seems in on the joke regarding her age. How else could you explain this script's obsession with her failed driving tests? I'd call it a sub-plot if only it were that and didn't lead to an excuse for an exciting car chase through the streets of Istanbul with her dad yelling instructions at her like a backseat driver. It's almost become a running gag having adult performers playing teens but this is a steep age difference Grace pulls off and I'm betting it would be a challenge for anyone not familiar with the Lost actress to guess she's not at least around the same age as the character she's playing.
Famke Janssen's formerly unlikable ex-wife has been softened for obvious reasons to fit the plot but despite the actress's best efforts I can't say I cared as much about her fate. Yet even this installment's most fervent detractors would have difficulty denying it's really the improved father-daughter dynamic this go around that what most sets it apart from its predecessor. And in one of the strangest aspects of an already strange film, someone involved in the production is apparently a big fan the Drive soundtrack, as two highly recognizable songs from the already cult classic make curious (if entirely pointless) cameos. That so many seem to be up in arms about it despite the filmmakers being legally well within their bounds to use them speaks volumes about the imprint that movie and its music is still leaving. Anything signifying that I'm okay with, even if it does nothing to add or take away from the proceedings here.
Yes, there will be a Taken 3. We know that much by how the seeds are so obviously planted for it at the end. And it'll be interesting to see how they move forward considering all the characters who can be taken already have. The series may have to move in a completely new direction, which is probably for the best just as long as Neeson's still involved. Sure, this film's ridiculous but so was the original. Both in a good way. The Taken series works because it fully embraces its own ridiculousness without so much as winking. And while the set-up here isn't quite as crisp it does accomplish what a successful sequel needs to in expanding the universe and getting us further familiarized with the characters. Considering there's a new name behind the camera the drop-off is quality is surprisingly minimal, with extended sections of the film certainly crazier and more fun than they have any right being. You might occasionally shake your head at its absurdity, but you won't be bored.