Taken 2 had merely been exactly what it looks like - a carbon-copy retread of 2008's Taken, the film with which Liam Neeson ushered in his very unexpected late-career reinvention as a savagely effective action star - that would have already raised its share of questions, like "okay, why?" Not that studios ever both to ask the question, for they are not encouraged to do so by the enthusiasm of fans, but I like to think that there needs to be some active reason to watch a sequel, something that makes it different enough that one has some motive not to just re-watch the original.
Well, as it turns out, Taken 2 has that - turns out, in fact, that Taken 2 is nowhere remotely near the beat-for-beat retread that was promised in the ad campaign - and this is uniformly to its detriment. Partially, this is for the long-obvious reason that no matter what the new film did or didn't do right, it wasn't going to have an equivalent to The Monologue. The one that you know about even if you've never seen Taken: the one where Neeson, in his beautifully raspy voice, promises that he is going to rain down upon the villain like the wrath of the Old Testament God. The kind of blissfully superficial moment that is tailor-made to cinephilia in the age of YouTube and Twitter. The iconic, easily-relivable moment that is, I suspect, a significant part of the reason that Taken was a major hit, while fellow "Nesson is violent" pictures Unknown and The Grey were not. It never appeared that Taken 2 was going to have such a moment, and lo and behold, it does not; and for that one fact alone, in the absence of any other considerations, it was never going to be as good as its predecessor.
And Taken 2 needlessly hobbles itself by spending so much time avoiding the one thing it seemed poised to deliver by the barrow-full, the only thing it needed to do in order to meet the minimum possible requirement for a Taken sequel: scene after scene of Neeson pounding his way through henchmen like a video game character. The appeal of Taken, after all, was not just a performer of Neeson's gravity bringing a tawdry revenge thriller up to his level, but of the unrelenting action surrounding him as he did so. Taken is a movie with virtually no fat; Taken 2 is a movie that, after a time, has managed to trim nearly all the fat away; but it starts with oh so very much fat in the first place. Apparently gathering that what made the first movie work so well was the focus on the protagonist's relationship with his daughter, the filmmakers (Robert Mark Kamen and producer Luc Besson returning to write the screenplay; Olivier Megaton new to the fold as director) have doubled down, and thus we get an action movie that starts out by presenting the dynamic, compelling story of how Bryan Mills (Neeson) wants to get back into daughter Kim's (Maggie Grace) life by helping her pass the driver's test that she has so far failed twice, to her intense embarrassment (amplified, one assumes, by the fact that she looks every minute of 30 years old; Grace was already too old for her part four years ago, and I think we can safely say that a bit of recasting wouldn't have lost too many of the franchise's faithful); how he reconnects with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), whose new husband is being a real dick; and at some point, the line between "we need a scenario" and "we would rather investigate the dynamic of this fractured family than get to the 'action movie' part of this nominal action movie" gets stomped on with unattractive glee, aided in no small part by the intense lack of chemistry between any combination of the three actors.
Even once Bryan takes his ex and their daughter to Istanbul - fuck, even after he and Lenore get kidnapped by the father (Rade Serbedzija) of the main villain from the last movie - Taken 2 simply will not start; first there is a long cat-and-mouse sequence as Bryan tries to head off the bad guys, then there is a longer sequence (at least it feels longer) as he uses a hidden phone to guide Kim to find where he and Lenore have been stashed, and then, finally, about halfway through the movie, the preliminaries are done, and the action movie can begin; except that when it does, it never attains the level of the first movie, nor anything close to it.
The fault might be, at least partially, Neeson's increasing age (four years isn't much, but he's 60 now, after all); but mostly it's obviously Megaton's directing. This isn't the first time he's fucked up a seemingly unfuckupable Luc Besson series (he also headed Transporter 3), and to be honest, it almost seems like he had to work at it: for all my snark, the sequence in which Bryan guides Kim to his location, though indebted more to the rules of Movie Cool than the rules of good logic, really should work, because the Movie Cool being invoked is downright awesome, and in keeping with the series' notion that Bryan is some kind of flawless spying machine. And yet it's sluggish, and choppy - the editing in the film is a real disappointment, much more disjointed than the original - and Megaton's direction brings out all the worst in Grace as an actress, making the time we spend with her as a presumptive action hero rather too annoying.
He is helpless, at least, to do much to ruin the action sequences, though like the rest of the film they are too choppy; and compared to the balletic savagery of the first Taken, what we see here is far less intense, or creative: mostly just Neeson punching people in the face or throat, or doing relatively quick things with a gun. And again, I get it: 60-year-old man. But you know what people didn't say they loved about Taken? Realism. It's the excess that made that movie so much of a delight for the caveman part of the viewer's brain, and while Taken 2 certainly isn't dainty, it's not particularly excessive; wracking my brain over a movie I just saw a day prior to this writing, I can't come up with more than one or two individual beats of a fight that really impressed me; thinking about Taken, which I last say more than a year ago, I can. If that doesn't speak to the deflationary quality of the sequel, I'm not sure what does; and sadly, a movie that looked to be problematic because it was just the same stuff reheated, is even more problematic because it ends up being the same stuff, served cold.