Monday, October 8, 2012

TAKEN 2 Is Entertainingly Pulpy Sequel

TAKEN 2 Review:

- Many critics have taken aim at TAKEN 2 ... but then again, many also dismissed the original TAKEN. I'm not sure why. The first Taken had everything you could want in an action movie. It was badass, Liam Neeson owned in it, and it just worked wonderfully as over-the-top pulp. There's really nothing better than watching a dude who looks like he could be your dad whooping ass like nobody's business. And Neeson plays that sort of part to perfection. Since Taken became a box-office hit, we've seen Neeson reprise the role of grizzled-yet-cerebral asskicker many times. Some of these films have been duds, some have been awesome (this year's THE GREY being a huge highlight). But Taken - while a relatively simple and no-frills film, stands the test of time as eminently rewatchable and endlessly satisfying for its bare-knuckle pleasures. And now ... Taken 2. Some seem annoyed that this film even exists. I don't know why. I too get annoyed wit hunnecessary sequels, but Taken is less about a particular narrative, and more about the crowd-pleasing aesthetic I described above - watching a guy morph from frumpy Dad to ruthless weapon of mass destruction whenever his loved ones are in danger. And you know what? As far as sticking to that fundamental premise goes, Taken 2 delivers the goods. The movie has some notable faults, but like its predecessor, it's ridiculously entertaining and a great bit of action-flick escapism.

TAKEN 2 picks up a short time after the events of the first movie. Bryan Mills (Neeson) has moved to LA to be closer to his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and their daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace). Mills is still an overprotective, hyper-paranoid dude, but he's also been a loving and involved father. As in, sure, he tracks down the home of Kim's new boyfriend and interrupts them mid-hook up to check in ... but still, he's just looking out for his daughter. And his ex-wife seems to appreciate that. She's now separated from her second husband, and there are some hints at a rekindled romance with Bryan. To that end, Bryan invites Lenore and Kim to join him on a trip to Istanbul. He's going there to work some security detail, but figures that, afterwords, there may be an opportunity for some quality father-daughter and husband-ex-wife time. Meanwhile, however, a bunch of sinister Albanians are plotting ways to wreak unholy vengeance on Mr. Mills. Seems they're still upset about all of the random redshirts that Mills killed in Taken 1. As it turns out, those faceless kidnappers weren't just identity-less thugs, but people's husbands, brothers, and sons. So the patriarch of the group has rounded up a gang to take out Mills and family while in Istanbul. Of course, they don't just want to kill him - they want to steal away his family and put him through emotional torture. And so Taken 2 revs up, and Liam Neeson is forced to kick ass once again.

The biggest dynamic-shift in Taken 2 is that Neeson is only solo for part of the film. For stretches, either his daughter or wife tags along - depending on who is or isn't being held against their will at a given moment. This could have seriously derailed the film, but mostly, it works pretty well. In particular, there are some strong moments between Grace and Neeson, and there's a fun arc that develops between them - basically seeing Bryan have to do away with his overprotective tendencies, and allow his daughter to embrace her inner Mills-family badass gene. After not doing much of note in Taken 1, and having had a pretty thankless action role in the mediocre Lockout, I wasn't sure if Maggie Grace could bring anything to the table here. But you know what? She's pretty good. And Janssen is also good, and it's too bad she doesn't get to unleash a little hell of her own, Phoenix-style. Oh well, maybe in Part 3.

But here's the thing overall with Luc Besson-produced films like this one: they have a Euro sensibility that is different than the usual American action movie. There aren't a lot of quips, and there's almost zero sense of irony or winking at the audience. Everything is played straight - and while there's a knowing pulpiness in the film, the tone is not in any way jokey. To some, it's hard to process that - when things get crazy, shouldn't there be some funny one-liner to diffuse the tension? That's not how Besson  (who co-wrote the film) and co. roll. They take their pulpy action very seriously, and it's been that way since the days of La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional. What I like about this is that I find it easier to get caught up in the action when there's nothing that's overtly eye-roll worthy. Even when there's logic-gaps (and there are some obvious moments of absurdity here), it doesn't feel like as big a deal, because this type of Euro action flick doesn't feel as desperate to please as many of the big American blockbusters. If you can't handle your action relatively humorless, then perhaps stay away. But if you yearn for the sort of deadly serious yet brazenly cheesy action that's been largely missing from pop-culture since Jack Bauer hung up his CTU vest, then all I can say is: here ya' go.

That being said, to me the biggest glaring flaw in the film is the lack of great villains. Taken 1 also didn't have truly memorable badguys, but that was besides the point. Here, you notice it a little more because of how the film is structured. The old Albanian patriarch I mentioned earlier is set up as the Big Bad, but he's an old chubby guy so he's not really a physical threat. This makes his ultimate encounter with Neeson a bit anticlimactic. I would also then liked to have seen some of the main henchmen built up better as badasses - again, to give their face-offs with Neeson a little more gravitas. I mean, the movie's biggest mano e mano fight scene is Neeson against some short, stocky guy with a bad haircut and garish tracksuit. There's never any question that the jabroni in a tracksuit is in for a grade-A beatdown.

I also think that the movie touches on a very interesting idea, but never 100% follows through in a satisfying manner. That being the notion that all of the nameless thugs you see gunned down by the hero in a typical action movie ... that they actually have friends and family who are pissed that their loved one was a casualty of one man's vigilante justice. I felt like there was some real potential here, but when Neeson comes back at the Albanians with "true, but your sons and brothers kidnapped innocent girls and sold them into slavery, so screw you." ... and that's sort of that. I mean, I don't want or need Taken 2 to be a deep philosophical meditation on the cycle of violence and how it's self-perpetuating, but -- it would have been cool to at least see it more fully integrated as a key theme in the movie's plot, and not just as an excuse to send a bunch of badguys after Neeson and his family.

But really, when you get down to it, what I look for in a movie like this is: how many moments of worthy badassery were there? And the answer is: plenty. I won't give away some of the best bits, but the movie pretty effortlessly kept me smiling and entertained throughout. The build-up to the kidnapping was fairly methodical, sure - but that made Neeson being forced back into action all the sweeter. Director (and holder of an incredible name) Olivier Megaton delivers the goods, crafting some excellent car chases, shoot-outs, foot-chases, and brawls. I enjoyed the Istanbul location as well, and found it a refreshing setting for a movie of this type. I will list one final complaint - that being the relatively limp ending of the film. I was sure that there'd be one final moment of badassery, or a final twist leading into a Part 3, to make sure we all left the theater properly pumped-up. But really, nothing all that awesome to send 'em home happy.

All in all, Taken 2 was fun as hell and delivered some gripping action. Is this a classic? No - it loses some of the laser-focus of Part 1, and struggles a bit to come up with a compelling plot to convincingly drive the action. But I will say ... the level of rewatchability is still there. This is one of those great Sunday afternoon films that you'll stop and watch if ever you come across it on cable. And hell, why not - bring on a Part 3.

My Grade: B+

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