Liam Neeson in "Taken 2."
REVIEW: A sequel to the 2008 action thriller "Taken" was probably inevitable, given that movie's astonishing success worldwide -- a take of $225 million for an outlay of barely one-tenth that amount. The makers of "Taken 2" have stuck as close as possible to the original formula: the same actors, the same high-octane mixture of violence and pursuit, the same assertion of family values. The location has shifted from Paris to Istanbul, but otherwise "Taken 2" could virtually pass for a remake. With more funds to lavish on production values and this time the advantage of a precedent, there's every prospect of similar causes leading to similar effects at the box-office.
Liam Neeson reprises his role as the retired CIA operative and concerned parent Bryan Mills while Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen re-enlist as his daughter Kim and ex-wife Lenore respectively. The story hinges on revenge rather than rescue. Writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (who also scripted "Taken") reference the earlier movie in an opening hill-top burial scene where Albanian clan chief Murad Krasniqi (Rade Sherbedgia) vows to avenge Mills' killing of his son, the head of a human trafficking ring who had had the bad idea of making off with Kim. His plans are given a boost when Mills -- ill-advisedly, as it soon proves -- invites Kim and Lenore to spend some holiday time with him in Istanbul where his private security firm has just completed a deal with a wealthy sheikh. One car-chase later, and it's Mills' and Lenore's turn to be "taken," while Kim only narrowly avoids a similar fate.
From here on in it's played strictly by the numbers. The infinitely resourceful Mills, who has secreted a micro cellphone about his person, manages to contact Kim and teleguide her actions, organising their escape by remote control. Practicing Houdini-like skills, he is able to break free of his bonds and save Lenore before she bleeds to death. There are no martial arts of which he is not the master, whether wielding a handgun against assault-rifles or bare-fisted against a band of men armed with clubs and knives. An ultimate mano a mano leads to a final confrontation with the clan chief and a conclusion which leaves open the possibility of a "Taken 3."
There's one decent joke in a movie that is otherwise played perfectly straight, a second breakneck car-chase through the souk in which Mills is in the passenger seat, the wheel taken by his daughter who, we've been informed early on, has flunked her driver's permit twice and has been skipping driving lessons.
Directed by Olivier Megaton, a journeyman helmer in the Besson stable ("Transporter 3," "Colombiana"), "Taken 2" is in some ways a more polished product than its predecessor, taking full advantage of its exotic locations and pacing its action sequences more successfully. The villains are still cardboard cutouts -- short, dark, Oriental and not much interested in anything other than televised soccer -- and the general level of characterization is skin-deep. But the filmmakers know precisely what they are doing, and ultimately whether it's a good or a bad movie is beside the point. So is the issue of plausibility. This is the action-movie pared down to the basics, story-telling without pretension of subtlety, irony or sophistication, "Superman" without the superpowers and the fancy costume.
Neeson is utterly convincing as the anger-fueled but soft-spoken action hero, the personification of the regular guy pushed to the limit in defense of his family, and it's hard to see the "Taken" franchise succeeding without him. There's a touch of vigilante advocacy in the movie that will displease some, with Neeson as a more gentlemanly version of the Charles Bronson of the "Death Wish" series, but clearly there's still a market for such fantasies. Moviegoers who liked "Taken" and want more of the same will get precisely that.