Taken 2 doesn’t pack quite the wallop of its predecessor. The original was a fairly standard action movie, elevated by a relatively lean and focused story, driven by a surprisingly effective Liam Neeson. Neeson is back for Taken 2, and he remains the best thing about the sequel. However, the film lacks the focused intensity of its predecessor. Much like its protagonist, the first film was almost single-minded in pursuit of its goal. This time around, there’s a lot more grizzle on the bone. Most of that comes from the decision to expand the world around Bryan Mills. While the movie works efficiently when Mills is driving the plot, it suffers from its decision to saddle him with more of his family this time around, with both the movie and the character almost weighed down.
In Taken, there weren’t really any characters outside of Bryan Mills. The bad guys existed to get brutalised and shot, his family were around to provide motivation and his daughter was a fairly shallow macguffin, a plot device to drive her father’s relentless pursuit of her kidnappers. Despite (or perhaps because of) a script light on exposition and angst, Neeson was able to craft something of a character out of Mills, convincing us that the one-dimensional one man army was bubbling away with a barely-contained rage that he simply never saw it necessary to share.
Such an interpretation was the best of all possible worlds for the film. Neeson’s performance allowed us to believe Bryan was a real person with real human feelings, and the script didn’t need to burden itself with character-building clichés and shorthand, or sidekicks or any other action movie clichés. There was Bryan, there was his objective, and there were dozens of bodies in his path. Taken 2 lacks this elegant simplicity. It makes an almost fatal mistake when it decides to focus on characters outside of Bryan. So we get plot threads like an attempt to rekindle romance between Bryan and his ex-wife, and other stereotypical action movie beats like that. This padding is primarily a problem with the portrayal of his daughter Kim, but it also extends to the leader of this sinister bad guy cabal.
It might seem nice that the film is extending Kim’s role, revising her from convenient victim to would-be action hero. The problem is that Kim is absolutely insufferable as a character. Bryan Mills is fascinating as a character because Neeson plays him as this determined introverted man who will do whatever it takes to protect those he loves. On the other hand, the movie fleshes Kim out as the worst assortment of clichés possible.
She spends a significant portion of the middle of the film wandering around in a bikini, or crying, or missing vital phone calls from people. I know that she’s not used to this world, but she has seen her father in action, and should trust him. At the very least, given what happened last time, it seems unlikely that he wouldn’t have at least taught her some self-defence or at least to listen to him when he advises her.
The movie never really addresses the impact that the last film had on her, which would be a vital step of any coherent character arc for her. We get a few shots of grainy flashbacks for people who missed this movie’s predecessor, but there’s never any indication that being kidnapped and sold into sex slavery really made any sort of impact on her – certainly not when men with guns and similar tattoos show up. She just acts like any regular person would, rather than somebody living through the continuation of a tragic experience.
As a result, Kim doesn’t feel like a character, she feels like a cliché used to pad out the film. She reminds me of another character named Kim, also the daughter of a bad-ass federal agent. That Kim also used to pad out a fairly thin plot, and proved a distraction from what the show did well. Here, Kim seems like a handicap that the movie saddled Bryan with, if only because the agent against an entire Albanian mob would be remarkably unfair if he didn’t have a self-imposed disadvantage.
The car chase in the middle of the film almost devolves into farce as Kim repeatedly questions her father. Even in the context of this film, I would think he’s earned absolute trust, and the sequence halts every time we cut to Bryan ordering things like “go! Kim!” and “Kim! move!” The most significant contribution Kim makes is screwing up so badly that Bryan seems to just give up and end things himself. The movie gets a lot better towards the final act, as Bryan get more screen time to himself.
Liam Neeson is a massive boon to these films. He’s a fantastic actor with an imposing physicality that lends itself to something like this. In particular, Neeson has a massive advantage over most similar action stars, even those half his age. He’s a phenomenal actor. Bryan Mills isn’t written as any more complex than any other action hero in any other exploitation film, but it’s Neeson’s charming performance that sells it.
Even in the movie’s action sequences, Neeson makes a conscious effort to avoid the type of showboating that one might expect from a martial arts action star. The choreography keeps Mills’ moves practical and calculated, but Neeson makes a point of remaining cold and stoic, genuinely creating the impression of a character who is perfectly in control in outrageous situations like this. Towards the end of the movie, the film allows Bryan to effectively cut loose, and Neeson is just perfect as a stoic death machine.
The movie also does well to keep a relatively simple plot. Taken 2sees a bunch of relatives of his former victims vowing revenge on the CIA agent who so ruthlessly shuffled them off their mortal coil. It’s a straight and to-the-point set-up, one that avoids the contrived coincidence that the same stuff might happen to the same family twice. In fact, I kinda want to see an upcoming Bond film where our British protagonist finds himself taking on the Henchmen’s Union for fifty years of gratuitous henchman massacring. It’s a wonderfully efficient plot for the film, and it saves us too much arduous set-up.
However, it comes with its fair share of problems. The most obvious is the fact that it creates a singular villain driving this mob, played by Radé Serbedzija. Serbedzija is fine, having built a career out of playing sinister foreign characters, the movie doesn’t work because it expects us to treat his character as a well-rounded individual despite the fact he’s an inflated plot function. In Taken, Bryan powered his way through hordes of anonymous criminals in a gleefully unpretentious manner – these were nothing but bodies to inflate his kill count. Here, instead, the film seems to try to get us to invest in the villain as an individual, rather than as an anonymous mass. It doesn’t work nearly as well.
Of course, the flip side is that this single driven villain is necessary to justify the plot. After all, if I managed to get my hands on a CIA agent who single-handedly slaughter almost everybody in my phone book, I’d kill him as quickly as humanly possible. Capturing him alive just seems like suicide by proxy. After all, the guy’s in this mess because he’s an unstoppable killing machine. The movie tries to introduce us to the villain as a way of justifying the decision to keep Bryan alive after capturing him, for the old “slow and painful death” deal that neverworks. So there is a reason for the decision to focus on one villain, even if the movie doesn’t define him too well.
Taken 2 doesn’t work as well as its predecessor. Liam Neeson is still as charming as a leading action star, but the movie dilutes the success of Taken, actively avoiding some of the key ingredients that contributed to that film’s success. It’s not a complete misfire of a sequel, but it feels a good deal more average and more padded than its lean, mean, killing machine of a forerunner.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Action film, Bryan, Bryan Mills, Central Intelligence Agency, famke janssen, film, Kim, liam neeson, Maggie Grace, Mills, Movie, Neeson, non-review review, Olivier Megaton, review, taken, taken 2