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Taken 2 - review

An amusing thriller sequel that uses the oldest tricks in the book.

Taken 2 (12A)
dir: Oliver Megaton

The transformation of Liam Neeson into an action hero, ratified in the 2008 thriller Taken and now its sequel, is not as unlikely as it seems. Nor has it been as jarring as, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempts at comedy or Clint Eastwood’s contribution to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. In one of Neeson’s earliest films, 1985’s Lamb, he played a priest on the run with a child he has saved from mistreatment; the devout figure compelled to defy the law in the name of decency is one to which Neeson has clung through films fantastical (Darkman) and grave (Schindler’s List). It endures most strongly in the action movies (Unknown, The Grey) tailored to him since Taken took off.

One measure of Neeson’s newly indelible persona is the ease with which it can be parodied, whether by others (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip) or by the actor himself. In Ricky Gervais’s terrible series Life’s Too Short, Neeson was quietly uproarious, declaring with blood-freezing sombreness his secret ambition to be a stand-up. (His clueless stab at a comic improv set in a doctor’s office was unforgettable: “I’ve got full-blown Aids,” he growled. “I’m riddled with it.”) His sobriety is also a joke in the Taken movies. It isn’t that he thinks he’s too good for the material – more that we know damn well he is and can laugh at the disparity.

In the first Taken, Neeson played Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA agent who frets over his teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) and her impending European holiday. When she is kidnapped by Albanian sex-traffickers, the film becomes a vindication of Bryan’s mollycoddling and every xenophobic fantasy that keeps the tabloids sizzling. Somehow Neeson’s pained gusto had integrity. The monologue he delivered on the telephone to his daughter’s kidnapper, spoken in a lock-jawed whisper verging on the tender, gave him a catchphrase (“I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you”) ripe to be exploited further. Taken 2 takes the bait but also the biscuit.

It’s directed by Olivier Megaton, who may find his name precludes involvement in any Jane Austen adaptations. The dilemma posed is how to replicate a narrative formula that hinged on an unrepeatable accident. A privileged Los Angeles teenager would need extraordinarily rotten luck to be sold as a sex slave twice before she had even passed her driving test.

This time, Bryan is the target, which lowers the stakes somewhat. He’s in Istanbul, accompanied by Kim and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), when the father of a dead Albanian sex trafficker declares war (“We will haff our wivenge”) against this tall, slightly stooped Irishman with the sorrowful eyes and the even more sorrowful denim shirt. It’s not difficult for Bryan to spot his adversaries: they’re the only ones in the lobby of his luxurious hotel who are wearing shell suits. If any of them thought to buy a tuxedo, they’d really get the jump on him.

With Bryan and Lenore kidnapped, much of the film focuses on Kim following telephone instructions from her father to help him escape. This is entertaining in its mix of Blue Peter DIY (a map, a pen and a shoelace help determine Bryan’s whereabouts) and a blasé attitude to destruction demonstrated when Kim casts grenades around Istanbul as though scattering birdseed in Trafalgar Square.

The film is dependent on schoolboy errors made by the villains, who give no sign of having seen an action movie. First, they fail to knock Bryan unconscious on the way to the hideout, enabling him to pinpoint by sound his approximate location. (I was hoping the kidnappers had been playing a BBC sound effects album to confuse him.) Then they leave him unguarded for hours. They also decide not to kill him immediately, preferring the trickier idea of ferrying him to their Albanian village. It’s a plan worthy of Dr Evil from the Austin Powers films, who liked to place adversaries in easily escapable situations involving overly elaborate and exotic deaths.

I like the old-school corniness, if not the oldschool racism, of the Taken films, where no one buys a newspaper unless they need something to hide behind while spying. (That will be another loss if print goes to the wall. You can’t cut eye-holes in an iPad, you know.)

Where the sequel falls short is in the efforts of the film-makers (notably the co-writer/coproducer Luc Besson) to broaden its appeal. The decision appears to have involved subcontracting parts of the movie to the creators of Hannah Montana. The softening required to secure a 12A certificate leads to an emphasis on the teen-soap aspects of Bryan and Kim’s relationship (he’s too controlling, she craves independence). And the toning-down of violence results in several occasions where the editing is so discreet that Bryan seems to have killed his assailants using only a disapproving look.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special