Here’s a little test: how can you identify the villain in Taken 2, the sequel to Liam Neeson’s surprise-hit 2008 action thriller? Well, there’s a suspicious-looking character who tells Liam Neeson’s retired CIA operative Bryan Mills, “Don’t play the hero with me.” What is this guy, un-American? Oh yeah, that too: crime lord Murad Hoxha is Albanian, and played by Rade Šerbedžija, eternally pigeonholed as the go-to, all-purpose Euro-baddie. Also there’s the part about spilling Mills’ blood on the same ground as Hoxha’s dearly departed son, killed by Mills in Taken.
“Very funny,” you sneer. “What kind of test is this? Obviously, Hoxha is the villain.” But the screenplay’s half-serious irony—the only interesting area into which “Taken 2” dizzily staggers—implies the villain could just as well be Mills. The Taken movies define Mills by the intersection of his total commitment to family and his fiercely leonine ultra-competence as a man of action (“When you give,” his ex-wife enthuses, “it’s one-hundred percent of one-hundred percent”)—who terminates with extreme prejudice, but only in defense of self and family, so it’s all good. Turn the story one-hundred-eighty degrees, though, and Hoxha acts not too dissimilar to Mills: enraged that a foreigner would blithely make collateral damage of (not-so-innocent) “sons and grandsons, fathers and husbands” and think he could get away with it, Hoxha relentlessly pursues his own justice (and, yes, as per the law of the playground: he started it). Since Mills offers a last-minute invite to his ex (Famke Janssen) and their daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) to join him on a business trip to Istanbul, Hoxha gets a shot at teaching the American that turnabout is fair play.
As written by Taken screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen and directed by the self-christened Olivier Megaton, Taken 2 certainly underlines the fact that the American family lives in the lap of luxury, whether it’s an L.A. manse or deluxe Istanbul hotel accommodations. But despite light teasing about our blinkered American entitlement, this movie has about as much intellectual value as a turnip. Obviously, no one goes to Taken 2 for an allegory of international relations, and it should be said that the picture plunks down ninety stupid but ruthlessly efficient minutes. As a writer-producer, Besson is particularly mercenary: knowing well his audience for these blood-simple actioners, he ticks off a rooftop chase, car chase, a handful of mano-a-mano clashes, and multiple crashes and explosions.
But the ludicrous plot devices that allow Mills to go from point A to point Z insult the intelligence of the character and the audience. Taken 2 has no more plot (in fact, probably less) than the average video game, and what’s here amounts to the Spy Kids version of the first film (this time, the whole family goes into action!). As for Megaton, he’s not so much “the bomb” as a dud: the all-important action proves clumsy in staging and choppy in editing. By the climax that pats “us” all on the back for being better than “them,” we’ll relate to Mills’ conclusion “I’m tired of it all.”
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]