Liam Neeson’s over-the-phone speech to the Albanian sex traffickers who kidnapped his character’s daughter in Taken (2008) has enjoyed a deservedly long pop-culture afterlife. Go up to an action movie-loving friend and growl in a steely voice, “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want.” If that person knows what’s good for him, he’ll pick up the thread: “If you’re looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills…”
What made that speech so satisfying was how perfectly it exemplified the movie’s get-it-done ethos: Like Neeson’s character, ex-CIA-black-ops specialist Bryan Mills, Taken had a matter-of-fact conviction about its own ruthless efficacy. It was nothing more nor less than a quick-and-dirty thriller about a former badass who comes out of retirement to wreak holy terror on some very scuzzy Albanians, thereby proving himself—years of neglect be damned!—the best dad ever.
Usually, action heroes tend to function as proxies for the viewer. We’re meant to imagine ourselves in their place, punching out Alan Rickman and rescuing Gwyneth Paltrow (or, if I might conjure up an even better movie, the reverse). But Taken didn’t make you want to be Liam Neeson, exactly—it made you want to be his daughter. (Or maybe his son: There must have been male viewers also drawn in by the primal daddy fantasies that Taken tapped into.) The notion of an über-competent, unstoppably brave, impossibly calm superdad who will find and protect you at all costs—and then, when he finally flings open the sex-dungeon door and lifts you out, it’s Liam Neeson—well, that’s powerful stuff.
Which is why Taken 2: I Can’t Believe I Got Retaken (OK, I made up the last part, inspired by this HuffPo list of alternate titles for this boringly named movie) was such a wan disappointment. I’m not asking for Chekhov here; I know any sequel to a successful action movie is going to ramp up the exploitation factor. But Taken 2 (co-written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, and directed by the providentially named Olivier Megaton) is so lazily put together that it relies on flashbacks from its predecessor for the majority of its character development. Remember that guy who would stop at nothing to get his daughter? Yeah, it’s him again.
Three years after that unpleasantness with the Albanians, Bryan Mills is in Istanbul, where he’s just finished working a three-day private security gig for a billionaire. On a whim, his college-aged daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and newly single ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) decide to join him for a holiday—unaware that the families of the men Bryan killed three years ago have staked out their hotel and marked them for death. But in a reversal of the original plot, this time it’s the parents who are captured by the thugs, and it’s the daughter who must save them—guided by terse over-the-phone instructions from her micromanaging dad (“Go to my armament case … get out a map and a grenade”).
Cue a long string of indistinguishable, choppily edited fistfights and chases through the back streets of Istanbul. (Those who enjoy traveling via theater seat will be disappointed: Rather than giving us a Bourne-style tour of the city’s intimate topography, the camera just keeps returning to the same aerial establishing shot of the Hagia Sophia church.) Neeson’s victory is so foreordained, his opponents so interchangeable—only one of them, ringleader Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija), gets any dialogue or back story at all—that the fight scenes start to feel detached from the main action, like interpolated outtakes from a mediocre martial arts movie. And I understand that, at 60 years old, Neeson isn’t doing all his own stunts, but director Megaton could mask that fact a little more subtly—the alacrity with which he cuts away to a long shot the moment Neeson raises his fists becomes almost comical.
The extent to which Taken 2 might be intentionally comical is open to debate. There are fleeting moments in which creators seem to grasp that the success of the original came, in part, from the then-unexpected casting of the middle-aged, gentle-faced Neeson as a fearsome action star (a type of role he has now definitively embraced in movies like Unknown and The Grey). Intended or no, there are some good laughs in this film’s climactic car chase, as Bryan, riding in the passenger seat, sweet-talks his not-yet-licensed daughter into some very poor driving decisions. (As they’re about to cross the railroad tracks just yards in front of a speeding train, he murmurs paternal encouragement: “You can do it!”) Less amusing is the movie’s vague but pervasive xenophobia. Though the Albanians’ embrace of crude tribal vengeance is never explicitly linked to their Muslim faith, the bad guys pretty much come off as an indeterminate horde of swarthy evildoers. Not that the innocent Turkish bystanders have it easy either. At one point, Bryan encourages his daughter to run along the rooftops of the city chucking down grenades, so he can listen for the explosions and figure out how far she is from the basement where he’s being kept. Unintended casualties, my eye—there are Americans in peril!
I don’t know who Taken producer Luc Besson is or what he wants, but it so happens that I, and many other fans of the original Taken, come equipped with a particular set of skills—skills we’ve acquired over a lifetime of discerning between good and bad action movies, skills that make us a nightmare for people like him. If he stops churning out Taken sequels now, that will be the end of it. We will not look for him, we will not pursue him. But if he comes out with Taken 3, we will look for him, we will find him, and we will kill him. Or at least kill his movie at the box office.