That seems like such a weird thing to say, coming from a red-blooded American male whose bread and butter is cinematic ass-kickery. The irony is, however, that the most tedious action movies tend to involve heroes who are so eminently competent – guys who know exactly what do at every single junction – that any feeling of danger or tension gets sucked out of the movie. Worse yet, it reduces the hero at the movie’s center to an empty collection of martial arts pirouettes and soulless one-liners. How kick-ass can an action movie actually be when there isn’t at least a lingering amount of fear that there ass could very possibly get kicked right back?
Bryan Mills, the man at the center of the overhyped 2010 action thriller Taken and its turgid new sequel from director Olivier Megaton, is an ass-kicker of the highest order. He is also, as even his generic name suggests, a colossal dullard. In the first movie, Mills bored me because the “certain set of skills” he brandished were so finely attuned, so perfectly within his physical aptitude, that the film completely failed at convincing me that either Bryan or the kidnapped daughter for whom he slaughtered (the non-white) half of Europe trying to find were in mortal danger of any kind. Taken 2, learning little from its predecessor’s dramatic failures, sleepwalks through its own plot with an equally listless banality.
Listlessness is an understandable (if frustrating) approach that this movie takes, given how popular the first Taken was financially. And in the movie’s defense, it is likely to get a pass from many by the sheer attitude its star, Liam Neeson, once again brings to Bryan Mills. This time Mills, now mending his relationship with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) – invites her to join him for a vacation in Istanbul. He also asks his ex-wife Leni (Famke Janssen) – herself recently separated from her second husband – to join them as one big, happy family. The Mills’ decision to enjoy some time off proves faulty, as they are soon ambushed by a team of assassins led by Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija), a vengeful old man keen to murder Mills for killing his own son in the first movie. Krasniqi’s first tactic, of course, is to bring Mills anguish by additionally punishing his loved ones; now both Kim and Leni find themselves in danger this time. What ensues is a series of cat-and mouse chases wherein the roles of “cat” and “mouse” frequently alternate, scenes involving an impossibly cool-headed Mills managing with the incompetence of his foes and the histrionics of the women in his life, and the peppering of some hand-to-hand fight scenes edited with such an epileptic disregard for fluid action, that it becomes nearly impossible to decipher – or more importantly, to enjoy – anything being experienced onscreen.
What frustrates me most about Taken 2 is how so many opportunities for this story of a trained assassin working to protect his family manage to go untapped. This can safely be chalked up to how disinvested Megaton is in making his sole female characters even a slightly interesting. The possibility for further tension between Kim and her dad deserve far more exploration than is given here, as Mills amusingly (and predictably) overcompensates with his fatherly protectionism in the film early on with his hostile treatment of her new boyfriend. It is also transparent that this series is working to reunite Mills with his former wife Leni before the end of what’s sure to be Taken 3, but here their relationship is denied a plot arc substantial enough to allow for any kind of unforced development in their relationship. It doesn’t help that Janssen, left with no help from Megaton to play an emotionally frustrated, double-divorcée-to-be, is comically bad with material that expects nothing from her.
Speaking of comicality, it is remarkable how little there is in Taken 2 by way of levity. So serious-minded Megaton is in producing an earnestly straightforward action film that he forgets to give the movie a sense of fun – or at least a pulpy, sinewy sense of gumption – to break up the movie’s single-minded yet cavalier attitude toward depicting as many on-screen deaths as possible. Even the movie’s rifest moment for comic relief – when Mills determines the location of his imprisonment by having Kim throw grenades around the city, is morose in a way that robs the scene of its inherent perversity. The treatment of this scene – and with many other scenes – is so straight-laced that it really turns Taken 2 into more of a chore than it ought to be. In all actuality, it can be rather depressing to watch as well.While he indeed makes for a boring hero, it’s not really Neeson’s fault that both Bryan Mills and the movie franchise involving him are as stolid as they are. Indeed, the silver-haired action ingénu (yes, I stand by that word use) truly is these movies’ saving grace. Otherwise, there is dismally little to separate this movie from the martial-arts schlock of Segal, Van-Damme and Norris – save for the fact that this one gets the novelty of affording viewers the chance to watch Oskar Schindler and Dr. Kinsey kill things (but even then, we have Rob Roy, The Grey and even The Phantom Menace to serve that purpose). But in order to be a truly kick-ass action hero, you need more than the winning attitude of your star to push a movie across the finish line. There seeds to be a sense of danger, a sense of excitement, and a sense of fun. I bound myself tenuously to the hope that Taken 3 might find what this franchise so desperately needs.