Like the vigilante he played in Taken, Liam Neeson has “a very particular set of skills.” One of them is imbuing formulaic characters with an intimidating authority beyond what the script calls for. Taken was a surprise hit solidly on the appeal of watching a dramatic heavy like Neeson, then in his late 50s, taking on the action-star genre with startling ferocity. Maybe he was channeling his youth as an amateur boxing champ in violence-racked Northern Ireland, or maybe he was just cutting loose with an improbable role (retired CIA spook hunting down his daughter’s abductors), but the result was a kickass revenge flick that one-upped even The Transporter (also from screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen).
For last year’s The Grey, Neeson did the opposite, bringing a cerebral gravitas (similar to what he did in Kinsey) to what otherwise might’ve been a throwaway part, helping the film to earn the critical respect not often given to man-against-nature actioners. And now, for Taken 2. . . do not expect the unexpected. Neeson merely reprises the original mix of fatherly concern and stoic ruthlessness, letting his gravelly baritone do all the work, since that’s about all the plot provides for. There is far too much talking on cell phones; apparently, kidnappers no longer search their captives, or even post guards, even when the captive is a known and extremely dangerous operative.
And that’s exactly what happens in this cash-in sequel. Supposedly on security duty, Bryan Mills (Neeson), along with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), are taken by vengeful Albanians under orders from Murad (Rade Serbedzija), a criminal ringleader. The silly set-up is that Lenore has been discarded by her second husband, prompting Bryan to invite her and their daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) to join him in Istanbul for a vacation. Not only does Lenore accept (even though that’s the same part of the world where Kim was auctioned into the sex-slave trade), but mother and daughter also show up unannounced, as a “surprise”—so that, needless to say, Bryan has not implemented any security measures. Sure enough, who should arrive at their posh hotel but a gang of Albanian thugs. Seems Murad wants revenge for how (but not why) Bryan executed his slave-trafficking son in the original.
Directed by Olivier Megaton, who helmed the crisply efficient Transporter 3 and Colombiana, Taken 2 is also efficient, in chase scene after chase scene, but with less interesting characterization and boringly contrived situations, despite the exotic settings. In Taken, it was the slavers’ international ubiquity that made Bryan’s rescue mission so impossible and therefore dramatic. By trying to get personal—and failing—Besson and Kamen have turned his action heroics into ridiculous escape artistry. Meanwhile, Murad comes across as an incomprehensible cliché. Even for the climactic face-off between Neeson and Serbedzija, his craggy Croatian counterpart, the urgency of both sides seems long out of steam.