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Taken 2: Familiarity breeds ennui

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From page A9 | October 05, 2012 | Leave Comment

The calm before the storm: Bryan (Liam Neeson) and his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), enjoy the exotic sights of Istanbul, little realizing that a vengeful Balkan and his legion of thugs are planning a three-way kidnapping. Their goal: to make Bryan suffer for the havoc he wrought in the previous film. Courtesy photo

“Taken 2″

Three stars

Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Rade Serbedzija, Luke Grimes, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, D.B. Sweeney

Rating: PG-13, for relentless violence and action

I often lament the market-driven ubiquity of sequels, many (most?) of which not only fail to live up to their predecessors, but often taint those happy memories.

Case in point: “Taken 2,” which became inevitable after its 2008 predecessor turned into a surprise hit that earned $224 million in worldwide box office.

This new entry isn’t a bad film, per se; it’s simply unnecessary. It covers no new ground, except to soften the long-estranged relationships between Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) and his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), and their outrageously spoiled teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace).

But that’s not the meat of director Olivier Megaton’s amped-up action thriller, which exists mostly so that Bryan can meticulously execute dozens of anonymous tough guys, who clearly flunked out of Thug School. Rarely have we seen such a careless, sloppy and unskilled collection of ruffians; even with automatic weapons, they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. They dishonor the tattoo that marks their clan.

In fairness, contrivance and coincidence also played a major role in the first “Taken,” but we weren’t quite as distracted by narrative implausibility; it was fun to see Neeson emerge as an unlikely but persuasively competent black-ops veteran. Mostly, Neeson’s Bryan was mesmerizing because of his shrewd and almost uncanny intelligence. Sure, he kicked plenty of ass, but mostly he out-thought his opponents. The concept felt fresh.

Yes, “Taken 2” finds a way to further explore Bryan’s smarts; scripters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen are savvy enough not to mess with success. But that’s the point; they also haven’t expanded upon that formula. In some ways, “Taken 2” feels less like a sequel and more like a remake; it suffers badly from a sense of sameness.

But to cases:

Things have indeed improved between Bryan and Lenore, in part because Stuart, her second husband — never seen and only referenced; I guess Xander Berkeley wasn’t available to reprise the role — has been exposed as a louse. Bryan still monitors Kim too closely, although most parents could forgive his paranoia; after all, she was kidnapped and almost sold into white slavery.

When Stuart bails on a planned family vacation, Bryan offers a trip to Istanbul; he has a bodyguarding assignment, and would be happy to share that exotic city with Lenore and Kim.

Ah, but Bryan doesn’t know about Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija), a Balkan whose son was one of many killed by our hero in the first film. Murad vows vengeance, both for his son and for all the other young villagers who were executed by this American; the fact that all these “sons, brothers and grandsons” were violent scum who kidnapped young women seems not to be an issue. Parents forgive all sins, I guess.

The plan involves a three-person snatch, but Murad’s goons are only partially successful; Kim manages to slip through the net. Even more conveniently, Bryan isn’t searched properly, and thus is able to call his daughter via a nifty little gadget concealed in one sock. For a time, then, the narrative comes to life as the cosseted Kim rallies and becomes an incredibly resourceful — and lucky — amateur operative.

Emphasis on lucky. Even though Besson and Kamen attempt to set up a logical means by which Bryan can remotely help Kim orchestrate a family reunion, the necessary suspension of disbelief will be beyond many viewers. The degree to which Kim successfully navigates her way through a wholly unfamiliar and quite confusing city — and so quickly! — won’t merely raise eyebrows; they’ll literally leap off your forehead.

Okay, fine; credibility never has been an issue with Besson, who I’m convinced is responsible for half the movies made in France these days. The writer/director/producer has a marvelous talent for marrying engaging actors with high-concept action storylines, going all the way back to 1990’s “La Femme Nikita,” which begat a film and TV franchise that hasn’t quit to this day.

Since then, Besson helped make a star of Jason Statham, with the “Transporter” series (three entries, and counting); he also paired Gary Oldman with young Natalie Portman in 1994’s marvelous “The Professional”; and dabbled in science-fiction (“The Fifth Element”) and children’s fantasies (“Arthur and the Invisibles” and its two sequels).

Besson is most at home with sizzling, high-octane — and highly improbable — thrillers such as “District B13” and, yes, “Taken.” And while Megaton may claim credit as director here — having also filled that chair with Besson’s “Transporter 3” and “Colombiana” — “Taken 2” feels every inch like a film Besson directed himself: lots of flash, plenty of explosions and gunfire, and a primal urgency fed, in this case, by a man’s devotion to his daughter and ex-wife. How can we not relate?

Neeson continues to be cool, calm and capable, always rising to the demand of a given crisis. He gives Bryan the emotional grace of a bull in a china shop, but that’s the nature of the character; this isn’t a guy who’s comfortable with his feminine side. Most crucially, he really sells the material; when he utters the fateful statement, during a key phone call with his daughter — “Kim, your mother and I are going to be taken” — we can’t help feeling the thrill.

As iconic statements go, with its variant well remembered from the first film, it’s a corker.

Janssen, happily, shows a softer side this time out; she badly overplayed the bitch card in the first film. Unfortunately, “softer” quickly morphs into “helpless,” which is rather insulting for entirely different reasons. It’s also weird how Bryan keeps charging off at key moments, leaving her “safely” behind, when in fact she’s anything but safe. Like I’ve been saying, stupid and contrived.

Grace, never an actress with much range, steps up reasonably well to her greater challenges this time out. One does tire, however, of hearing her squeal “I can’t!” every time her father tells her to drive faster, faster, faster, during the aforementioned car chase.

“What are you going to do?” Kim later wails.

“What I do best,” her father replies.

But that’s actually the problem: What Bryan Mills does best, this second time around, isn’t that interesting. His blindfolded navigation skills aren’t nearly as captivating as, say, Jason Statham’s dynamic physicality; Bryan only shoots and kills, shoots and kills. He never misses; his adversaries always miss. Pretty thin gruel for a sequel.

And what could be next? Will Bryan turn commando again when somebody snatches the family dog?

Really, Luc, you should have let this concept go with just one successful shot in the barrel.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

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