Taken had a certain gleeful idiocy that made it tough to hate: yes, the characters were paper-thin and the dialogue was only a few degrees better than your average porno, but District 13 director Pierre Morel and star Liam Neeson gave the proceedings a certain hard-edged charm. It was what my father-in-law likes to call “perfect action-trash.” Despite some laughably awkward bookends tacked on to give the film a semblance of broader meaning or goals, the movie was a properly scuzzy, fast-moving trip through dingy Parisian alleys and crowds of generic thugs that Neeson’s Bryan Mills mowed down indiscriminately as he attempted to rescue his daughter (Maggie Grace) from the clutches of sex traffickers. Part of what made the film so queasily watchable was the way Neeson’s character was willing to go far beyond what we’re used to seeing antiheroes do in the name of their own mission. He didn’t just chase and rescue; he exploited, killed, and tortured. He even shot an innocent woman to get her husband to reveal secrets. This was not a man to be ignored.
The sequel, though, is a sad joke. Helmed by Olivier Megaton, tt’s dumber, uglier, and emptier than its predecessor, and it’s so comically bad — from story and direction to acting and execution — that it becomes almost impossible to keep up with the unintentional laugh lines, dead-end plots, and lifts from every conceivable corner of film and pop culture. The first sign of this is right in the title: Taken 2. Using Arabic numerals in a title hasn’t been in Hollywood vogue for years, and it’s worth noting that one of the only other major recent releases to use them was The Expendables 2, which is itself a contorted riff/nostalgia trip. Franchises lean toward the headline-and-subhead model now, opting for longer titles like Transformers: Dark of the Moon that attempt (however successfully) to evoke feelings of grandeur and scale in the viewer. But that “2” is a blunt admission of the film’s true purpose, a clear signal of bland repetition, lazy design, and a desire to do nothing more than re-enact random moments from the first film. If sequels can be condescending cash-grabs by nature, then Taken 2 doesn’t even try to hide its contempt for the viewer.
The screenplay from Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, who also co-wrote the first film, does the bare minimum to set the stage and populate it with things that look like people who say things that sound like words that represent things that might resemble emotions. A lot of the film’s failings have to do with the inherent weirdness of every single character interaction that doesn’t involve bullets. The dialogue feels as if it was translated through multiple languages before finally settling back on English: how else to explain Neeson’s stern “Don’t go there, friend!” when one of his interchangeable colleagues jokes about Bryan’s relationship with his ex? What else but a genuine lack of interest in engaging or impressing a viewer could inspire a writer to have their villain lean in close to a victim and say “I guess the rules are changing”? What but a creator’s boredom could explain the way characters are always given ample time to escape situations that are not remotely dire? At one point, Bryan and his wife are held captive but then left alone so Bryan can pull a miniature cell phone from his sock and make a surprisingly lengthy call to Kim and establish an escape plan that involves sound waves, triangulation, and basic ordnance training. It’d be funny if it wasn’t supposed to be serious.
Taken 2 isn’t just a sloppily reproduced copy of the first film, but a generic cribbing of all other action movies on the scene today. Megaton, whose credits/liabilities also include Transporter 3 and Colombiana, uses a bland visual grammar with no driving emotion behind it and no reason to exist other than the fact that it has that action-movie glimmer to it. The opening credits are an epileptic assault of jumpy titles and jumbled footage that gives way to generic scene-setting in a tiny Albanian village where quietly weeping villains (led by Rade Serbedzija) are having a mass funeral for the men killed in the first film. There’s a brilliant idea buried deep in the scene: by forcing us to think about the crowds of bodies piled up in the first film as actual formerly living men with families and feelings, the filmmakers almost get to explore the curious tension inherent in all action movies that invites us to root for life by cheering on death. Unfortunately, the scene is over in a blink, and none of the new villains ever becomes anything but a placeholder. Aside from Serbedzija’s grizzled portrayal of the father of one of the first film’s thugs, I don’t think any of the new villains even get to talk (in English, anyway). Additionally, the sequence (and many, many more) often defaults to the aerial pan/pivot shot that’s been run into the ground by Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and a list of others. Every moment of the film feels like a half-remembered memory of one you’ve already seen.
It’s the villains’ ill-defined quest for revenge that leads them to kidnap and harass Bryan and his family when they’re all in Istanbul, though Serbedzija’s character is oddly unmoved by Bryan’s reminder that he only did what he did because Kim had been kidnapped by sex traffickers. (Incidentally, I’m writing “Serbedzija’s character” instead of using the character’s name because it’s hastily mentioned, instantly forgettable, and not attached to any kind of depth or dimension. You get the idea.) What made the first film work was the way Neeson’s obsessive, deadly field operative felt dropped into a story that made sense for him. We went along for the crazy ride because it (mostly) held together. Any sequel would probably have to involve the character once again doggedly pursuing criminals and rescuing someone special, but Taken 2’s carbon copying of the original is laughable, right down to the scene where Bryan calls his daughter and tells her that this time the whole family is going to be taken. He even says “taken” a number of times, which would be like Morgan Freeman saying, “Yes sir, Andy Dufresne found himself Shawshank redemption.” Taken 2 briefly inverts the original by having Grace’s Kim work to spring her dad from his captors, but the chemistry and idea are quickly abandoned, as if Megaton and company developed an allergic reaction to anything that might have made the film more interesting or memorable.
Taken 2’s derivations of other movies are often jaw-droppingly blatant. At one point, Kim listens to her iPod and we can hear snatches of “A Real Hero,” by College featuring Electric Youth, from the infinitely better Drive. This isn’t just a wink, though. Later on, Bryan goes to investigate a potential villain hideout and has Kim wait in the car. He tells her to wait five minutes and then leave if he hasn’t returned; he even sets a timer on her phone. As he explores the area, the soundtrack fills with Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock,” used in the Drive sequence where the Driver sets his watch and waits five minutes in his car. The galling nature of the ripoff — right down to using the same track for the same basic narrative moment — is so bad it’s almost admirable, and a reminder that Megaton isn’t interested in doing anything here you haven’t seen before.
There’s a bored, neutered quality to Taken 2 that makes it feel more like a bad dream than a film in its own right. Characters and locations come and go with no respect for causality, and the simplistic narrative keeps the stakes remarkably low. Bullets fly but leave no wounds; bones are broken soundlessly; men live and die just out of frame. As I entered the theater for the film, I was told by a security team working on behalf of 20th Century Fox that, to prevent piracy, I’d have to leave my cell phone in my car. I complied, but the studio needn’t have worried. There’s nothing here worth remembering.