The sequel to the international blockbuster Taken, cleverly titled Taken 2, doesn’t come into focus until a half-hour in, when Liam Neeson’s retired CIA agent Bryan Mills turns to his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) as their car is being converged on by baddies on an Istanbul street and says, slowly, “I need you to focus.” It’s about goddamn time.
That Neeson’s character doesn’t come alive until his family is threatened is a point too obvious to belabor. The bigger problem is that the director, Olivier Megaton, another Frenchie in the Luc Besson stable (FYI, he chose the name because he was born on the twentieth anniversary of the Hiroshima detonation), doesn’t seem to know how to shoot an ordinary conversation without nodding off. And those conversations are certainly ordinary. (“Hey.” “Hi.” “You look good.” “Thanks.”) Screenwriters Besson and Robert Mark Kamen have gone with Pointless Action Sequel Scenario A, pitting the hero against a vengeful relative (here, a father played by Rade Serbedzija) of one of the first film’s bad guys. (“The dead cry out for justice … We will not rest until his blood flows into this very ground … We will have our revenge … ” etc.) While Serbedzija is plotting in Albania and Turkey (“Is everything prepared?” “As you requested.” “Perfect”), Neeson is in L.A. contorting himself with worry over the fact that his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), has a boyfriend. Dude, she’s pushing 30, and she was a sex slave. She can handle it.
It is most urgent that Taken 2 attain a sense of urgency, and it finally happens on that packed Istanbul street, when Neeson sees a black car in back and a black car in front and just knows. He knows so much. He tells Janssen how many steps she needs to take when she leaves the car, which ways to turn, and the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow. It does no good at this point, though, because Serbedzija needs to catch him in order to make the Big Speech: “To you, they were nothing. You killed them like they were so many nothings.” There is no use reasoning with him: “He kidnapped my daughter.” “I don’t care what he did.” Heads must now roll.
Alas, they don’t roll literally. Taken 2 is PG-13 and, to my taste, could do with a tad more splatter — otherwise, the bad guys just seem like, well, so many nothings. You want an extra beat or two to savor the expression on their faces when they realize that they never had a muezzin’s call against the superior force that is Liam Neeson retrofitted by Luc Besson. Taken was PG-13, too, of course, but the narrative was such a clean, straight line that there was no time for arterial spray. Neeson was a man stripped down to pure, righteous, patriarchal fury, his mixture of machinelike precision and Hibernian dolefulness creating an indelible deliverer of death.
Megaton, best known for the choppy Transporter 2 and the choppier but much more dexterous Transporter 3, shoots and edits action scenes so that every shot is a hard shard. You can’t quite follow the blur of bodies with your rational mind, but you rock with the punches (and stabs and shots) all the same. There is one sequence worthy of Taken and then some. Neeson and Janssen have been taken, but Neeson still has a phone. He calls Kim, who is in a bikini but fortunately able to access her father’s handy-dandy weapons case — though, perhaps equally fortunately, unable to access her pants. With his uncannily computer-like precision, Neeson has her plot points and draw circles on an Istanbul street map, toss a handy grenade from a window so he can count the seconds until her hears the boom!, plot another circle, throw another grenade, and dispatch a European swallow with a semiautomatic. The screenwriters go out of their way to prepare you for Taken 3: Serbedzija has more sons, and Kim’s virginity is getting harder and harder to preserve.