Has anyone yet pointed out what a solid action director Pierre Morel is? While he’s only had three films under his belt — all in collaboration with French action genius Luc Besson — each one has been straight heat. His first, District B-13, is a goddamn revelation, capitalizing on the urban sport of the mid-2000s known as parkourto create one of the most kinetic martial arts films of the era that didn’t come from Thailand. And none of y’all saw his most recent (and admittedly weakest) effort, 2010’s From Paris with Love, but I assure you it’s a fun ride worth taking if it’s ever streaming on Netflix.
Between those films is Taken, a dizzying Red Bull cocktail on celluloid. At heart a modestly budgeted B-movie about a guy who kills a bunch of foreigners* after they abducted his daughter, Taken became a bit of a cult phenomenon thanks to Morel’s finesse and a now-classic, surgically violent performance from Liam Neesonthat guaranteed him spending the next phase of his career playing stern action heroes. It’s low-key but high-impact, like an intimate get-together where everybody’s doing bath salts.
But Pierre Morel did not direct Taken 2, much to our chagrin as a nation. That task was left to Luc Besson third-stringer Olivier Megaton, whose sole task appears to be helming Besson-produced sequels after their original directors refuse the call (see: The Transporter 3). The sad part is — just like the massively disappointing District 13: Ultimatum — we can feel Morel’s absence once again with this sequel.
The world of Taken isn’t necessarily one we needed to revisit — like, at all — but returning screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen come up with a surprisingly organic return to their characters. Retired CIA operative turned bodyguard Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is up to his usual tricks, trying to be involved in the life of his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) when he’s not doing security jobs all over the world, but his little girl’s growing up — she’s kissing boys, hoping her security specialist dad doesn’t run background checks on said boys and generally trying to live a normal life despite that one time she was almost a sex slave. Meanwhile, Mills’ ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and her second husband are splitting up, which would be a good chance for Bryan to weasel his way back in but he’s too stand-up a guy for that kind of underhandedness. The ladies soon surprise Mills after a gig in Istanbul and an impromptu family vacation results in Mills and Lenore being abducted in a subversion of the first film.
But here’s where Besson and Kamen really justify the sequel — the head of the kidnappers, Murad, (Rade Serbedzija) is the father of one of the Albanian goons Mills killed in the first movie, and he’s got a vendetta. Which is a fine reason for a sequel, implying that our characters are locked in a never-ending cycle of revenge that will consume their families for generations, but this story isn’t sophisticated enough to allow for that kind of exploration. Rather, Mills is the totally justified hero and Murad, while having a good reason for wanting revenge, is still a guy whose organization turns innocent girls into sex slaves. It’s the kind of creative decision that acknowledges that these kinds of movies need a degree of resonance while still satisfying our need to see really bad men get punched.
Too bad that, as an action flick, Taken 2 stinks, which is especially shameful because the original Taken is fucking brutal; I just watched this montage and, despite being a bunch of out-of-context shots of Liam Neeson shooting and kicking people, every moment of violence registers as compelling, understandable action. That’s because Morel understood how to shoot an action scene, while Megaton’s approach is chaos cinema gone rotten — all jerky handheld camera and quick cuts that render the action completely disorienting and incomprehensible.
And I’m not anti-handheld, either; I think Paul Greengrass used that style beautifully in his Jason Bourne movies, and Chris Nolan will tell you it’s a good method to hiding the fact that Christian Bale has difficulty moving in his rubber fetish suit. Meanwhile Megaton seems to think he’ll create an action scene that’s intense and visceral if he kicks over a tripod while Liam Neeson hits somebody. In reality, it’s confusing and frustrating, an effect made even worse due to editing techniques that are best described as “shitty.” Cuts rarely match up, vital moments that would inform us what’s going on are left out of frame and sometimes even basic sense of space is deemed too “cerebral.” Chaos for chaos’ sake doesn’t work as a strategy in making a mainstream action movie where the point of the movie is us taking pleasure in a man breaking the arms of complete strangers. A viewer needs to understand what’s happening and who it’s happening to.
As a result, the scenes between the action sequences end up far more watchable by virtue of being shot and edited in a coherent manner. The real big centerpiece that makes Taken 2 worth its 90 minutes** barely involves any violence — rather, it’s the entire act spent with Kim coming to the rescue with the help of her dad’s hilariously specific and bonkers instructions, which involve some light cartography and pinpointing the distance of grenade blasts like thunderclaps. Grace handles the material with a straight face and frazzled humanity as Neeson delivers his intensely worded instructions over the phone, making for this amazingly surreal blend of unintentional hilarity and fairly clever action movie logic. Either way, that this untrained young woman can effectively understand and carry out this man’s intense directions proves that she is indeed her father’s daughter.
On that note, the whole middle section of the film is actually an amazing display of father-daughter bonding through action cinema, a sort-of rewriting of the tropes of stuff like Commando, 24 and even the first Taken where a vulnerable young woman of blood relation is little more than a plot device***. It’s basically the major theme of this sequel, where Mills’ driving lessons earlier in the film are reflected in a car chase through Istanbul where Kim has to drive at high speeds through crowded streets, which is another surprisingly wise creative decision that plays off of the first movie.
So ultimately the most impressive thing about Taken 2 is how the screenwriters were able to justify a sequel, yet the thing is still essentially “more of the same.” The original Taken was no French Connection, but it was a solid and unpretentious action flick in an era where every movie had a goddamn robot or alien in it. As such, Taken 2 is no French Connection II — that one was a solid movie actually that took its characters in a different direction from its predecessor instead of trying to replicate its predecessor. I’m sure there are people in the world who wanted another movie exactly like Taken, where Liam Neeson murders a bunch of people in a foreign land to save a female relation. With the existence of Taken 2, I hope they’re happy. But I also hope I never meet them.
*They’re so foreign that they’re considered foreigners in France.
**And thank god for that 90-minute runtime. I think it’s the perfect length for breezy, populist action cinema — especially low-concept stuff like this — and any longer would make Taken 2 a chore.
***In Taken 2, a vulnerable older woman is the plot device.