"Taken" defined the Liam Neeson-as-action-hero persona we’ve come to enjoy so much. "Taken 2" just coasts on it. Olivier Megaton’s sequel (yes, that’s the name of the director, not the villain) plays it safe: some Middle Easterner’s kidnap Liam Neeson and his family (Famke Janssen as ex-wife Lenore and Maggie Grace as daughter Kim,) Liam gets mad, Liam escapes, Liam kills everyone. You don’t come for the plot twists; you come for the badass action scenes and for the singularly grizzled looks worn during them. On those counts, this "Taken" goes 1-for-2.
Let’s start with the good. It should go without saying, but Neeson is fantastic; he’s settled into the casual groove of an action star much better than he had for the 2009 original. I still hold that his painful, wrenching, hopefully cathartic performance in this year’s "The Grey" is one of the year’s best, and what Megaton gets out of him can’t begin to hold a candle to that. He deserves credit all the same. He elevates every second of the picture with his work. And what he does in the scenes where he’s murdering people is nothing compared to the magnificent winces and awkward line deliveries on display, say, in the scene where his daughter owns up to having a boyfriend. He’s convincing as a normal person who eats boring meals, worries about his family, and reads the paper; stuff people like Sly Stallone struggled with for 20 years.
You know, there’s a reason those action scenes seem uninteresting next to the dinner table ones. I blame the proliferation of the "unrated extended" DVD craze, but for some reason, this 100 bullets/minute revenge potboiler needs to be rated PG-13. I only saw the extended, ’European’ cut of the original, full of cathartic bloodshed and Neeson-delivered brutalism (it quite honestly brought his character a sense of questionable morality, elevating the film to another level.) When I caught 10 minutes of the PG-13 cut on HBO, full of lousy dubbing and cleaned-up violence, I almost vomited.
This one is more of the same, slashed to ribbons from what I imagine was an exceedingly gory first cut. When someone gets shot, they go from standing up to dead on the ground halfway across the room in a millisecond. It’s like a censorship agency has snipped out any frames of the actual carnage (in a sense, you could say that’s what really happened.) Hell, when Liam snaps someone’s neck (and it occurs many times), they can’t even include a bone-snapping noise. So it literally looks like he’s murdering people with a wave of the hand; a Jedi mind trick. Ever watch "Goodfellas" on TBS? This is kind of like that.
Megaton’s rapid-cut fights are like what Tony Scott action sequences would look like if Tony Scott were an unrepentant hack. We snap to a new angle every .8 seconds, any sense of the visceral obliterated by a style so blaringly loud that it drowns out the action we’re meant to be watching. He does, however, get the tongue-in-cheek tone that makes this movie work so; a sequence where Liam does a bit of MacGyver-style mapmaking by having his daughter blow things up around the city until he can hear the explosions clearly had me rolling on the floor (and intentionally so, I think.)
Moments like the grenade scavenger hunt, or the dinner table awkwardness, show what "Taken 2" can be at its best. This is scripted by people who realize exactly how preposterous the ’family men as action star avenger’ genre is; and use that to their advantage in every scene. It’s just unfortunate that this action picture has to eventually have, you know, action scenes; their bloodless construction is the film’s weakest point. It might be good in 6 months, when we get the unrated DVD. But it’s not good yet.