Usually the third movie in a series is the disappointment. “Rocky II”? Not so bad. “The Empire Strikes Back”? Solid entertainment. So moviegoers can be forgiven for being surprised by how weak the second movie in Luc Besson’s “Taken” series turned out to be. Since Luke Skywalker there hasn’t been a movie-series apple fall so far from the tree.
There was real reason to actually look forward to “Taken 2.” Its story was by Besson, the French action-picture entrepreneur who has written, produced, or directed international hits, including “Taken 1,” “From Paris With Love,” “District 13,” “Columbiana,” “La Femme Nikita,” “The Professional,” and “The Fifth Element.” Not much pretense in these French films. They are heavy on action, feature American and British stars, and have, most of them, not much in the way of back-story discussion.
The first “Taken” movie had Liam Neeson as Brian, a retired CIA agent, freakishly concerned with details, who discovers his daughter is being kidnapped (by white slavers! now there’s sophistication!) in Paris. He flies there, tracks down the abductors, kills a bunch of them, and saves his seventeen-year-old just before she is ravaged by a fat, sixty-ish pasha on a Seine River yacht. Shades of Charles Bronson. The poster bore this quote from the dialog: “I don’t know who you are but if you don’t let my daughter go I will find you and I will kill you.”
In the new, much, much more cheaply-made movie, Brian’s ex-wife (Famke Janssen) and daughter fly to Istanbul to visit him beginning just after he’s finished a little free-lance security work. The three are identified by agents of Albanians who are international procurers. Their sons and brothers were the guys killed by Brian in the first picture. Now these Balkans residents want bloody revenge.
The villains manage to grab Brian and Lenore (Janssen)—apparently the streets of Constantinople are as dangerous as are those of Paris. With Brian watching, they turn his ex into a water clock, only with blood from a neck wound instead of dripping water. Then, just like in Bond movies, they go away to let him free himself and save her life while they are off watching a soccer game on t.v. Or maybe it was ISU vs. TCU football.
Our hero uses his secret cell phone to give his bikini-wearing daughter directions for escaping pursuit and has her set off across the city’s roofs with grenades so that the lag on the booms will tell him how far away she is from him. She actually drives him to safety in the lightly guarded U.S. Embassy, and this after having twice failed her driver’s test.
Now the problem is, how to get Ma back. Luckily, Brain was paying attention during his blindfolded ride to the kidnapper’s headquarters. Will he get back to the dungeon in time? Will he overcome the squads of guards? Heck, the only suspense here is in seeing how. And that karate boxing scene on the raised ring seems phony, even in a movie about revenge acts of an Albanian virgin-abduction ring.
It isn’t that the fighting isn’t real seeming—the editing chops it up so that it is exciting enough. The problem is the setting. We can see how cheaply “Taken 2” was made by looking at the dimly-lit settings, eighty percent of them undistinguished house interiors. The only scenes that couldn’t have been filmed on a Hollywood back lot are the chase across tiled roofs (a favorite in recent action movies) and the aerial shots of the city. Even the relatively brief car chase scene could have been filmed on a set rather than in situ.
Then, too, few of the characters in the movie get more than a line or two of dialog to speak. This is a film with about six real speaking parts. “Taken 1” had maybe three times as many characters in it. Consequently, “Taken 2” seems cheap and thin. And cheap and thin means substantial cinematic disappointment..