Longer cut of a movie review in the Friday, Oct. 5 Oregonian....
The first "Taken" (2008) was a lean-and-mean action flick that became an international smash for a few reasons.
First, it had this beautifully stripped-down action narrative. Man is adrift. Man loses daughter he had with ex-wife. Man finds daughter and sense of purpose (and semi-reclaims family) by throat-chopping every sex-slaver in Paris.
Second, the story tapped into the primal parental protective instinct. It made the hero's rampage righteously satisfying. Because his kid was under threat, Liam Neeson's Bryan Mills had Jack Bauer levels of permission to be as brutal as he damn well pleased, and the audience had permission to savor every torture he inflicted. The protect-your-cub angle also gave "Taken" broader-than-usual appeal (my evidence for this being that my mom liked it).
Third, sad-faced Liam Neeson found a real character to play in all that choppy editing and slight plotting. Bryan Mills was overprotective and sort of pathetic until you needed his particular set of skills. He was the perfect man-as-shark. *
Unfortunately, "Taken 2" has a lot less of the above, and it's much, much sillier.
This mediocre sequel doesn't share the first film's laser focus or high quality, but at least it starts with a pretty great idea: What if an Albanian hit squad comprising the families of the 40 billion people Liam Neeson killed in "Taken" got together for a little payback? And what if that happened at the same time Neeson was trying to reconnect with his newly separated ex-wife (Famke Janssen) while dealing with his daughter's (Maggie Grace's) driving lessons and blooming love life?
But the execution -- in a script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, directed by Olivier Megaton ("Transporter 3") -- is far less focused and more cartoonish than the first film. It works as grimly frenetic B-movie stimulation and little more.
The sequel skips all over the place -- L.A.! Paris! Albania! Istanbul! Various neighborhoods in Istanbul! -- in a way that undermines tension. Neeson's overprotectiveness is more broadly played. (Remember how the domestic scenes in the "Lethal Weapon" flicks got more and more sitcom-y as the series wore on? It feels like that.) Janssen's damsel-in-distress act is rote, a thankless role. And the leader of the hit squad (Rade Serbedzija) is stuck with mustache-twirling lines that include the following: "You're a good mother and a brave woman. And for that, I'm going to send you home ... PIECE BY PIECE." I'm surprised he wasn't wearing a black stovepipe hat and tying Janssen to train tracks when he said that.
But mostly, the action in "Taken 2" is just silly in a way the first film's wasn't (or at least in a way the first film's forceful narrative papered over).
Neeson outsources a hilarious amount of action work to his daughter, including grenade-throwing and stunt-driving. The sequel's implausibility problem might be summed up by a scene in which a car smashes through an embassy barricade under a hail of bullets when it could just as easily have stopped at the entrance. Even worse, this gratuitous stunt is followed by a several-minute conversation between Neeson and Grace, both crouched down in the car's front seats -- leaving you wondering when the armed soldiers shown swarming the car a while back are going to at least tap on the windows or clear their throats or something.
The movie's excessive and logistically goofy, in other words, in a way the first film wasn't. (It operates more on the level of a B-programmer like "From Paris with Love.") It'll have a great opening weekend, but it seems a shame to have diluted "Taken"'s action-movie purity with a lame cash-grab.
* The"Man As Shark" action hero is the current vogue. Daniel Craig's Bond, Matt Damon's Bourne and Liam Neeson's Mills are all of a piece -- they're killing machines plowing video-game style through bureaucracies and phalanxes of bad guys until they get their answers, dammit. You could argue man-as-shark movie heroes are related to grimly forward-moving console-gaming protagonists -- but you can also trace their DNA back to Lee Marvin's Walker from "Point Blank," a malevolent ghost of a man killing his way up a criminal organization just so he can collect his money.
(91 min., rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sensuality) Grade: C
'Taken 2' (The Oregonian, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012)