Friday, October 12, 2012

Taken 2

Alternate Title:  Liam Neeson Kills Everyone Again

One sentence synopsis:  A retired special forces agent is attacked by the families of the men he killed protecting his daughter.

Things Havoc liked:  I don't mean to sound critical here, but for the last few years, Liam Neeson has been progressively transitioning from his previous wide range of movie roles to a typecasting of "badass middle-aged father figure who still has it". Though he's one of my favorite actors, thanks to films like Schindler's List, Love Actually, Rob Roy, Les Miserables, and Kingdom of Heaven, I've nonetheless always been conscious that Neeson is the sort of actor who needs a strong, capable director and script in order to bring out his talents. Without such things, Neeson tends to revert to monotone blandness, as examples as diverse as Star Wars Episode 1, the A-Team, and the Haunting can attest to. That said, one of his strengths is his ability to bring a level of quiet, refined subtlety to his better roles, whether they be Oscar Bait or his more recent action extravaganzas. A good example for this would be The Grey, where Neeson elevated the entire tone of the movie out of "Taken with Wolves" and into something truly special. Despite all the dross on his IMDB page, I still like watching Neeson, and I get excited to see him in most movies.

One of the things I liked about the original Taken was that, while the routine that Neeson went through to track his daughter down was demonstrably goofy, the movie at the very least did spend a great deal of time showing him go through it. Even if the particular steps and leaps that he was making in his search for his daughter (particularly the magic CIA buddy with infinite data on everything) were stupid, the movie got across tonally just how difficult and complex the process actually was, which lent credibility to the notion of a father with badass skills chasing his daughter down like a remorseless calculation engine. Taken 2, I'm relieved to report, tries to keep this model going. Easily the best sequence in the film comes roughly a third of the way in, after Neeson and his wife have been kidnapped by bad guys (the trailers spoil this, so I shall too). For about a solid half-hour, the movie puts the brakes on the action in favor of showing Neeson progressively working out how he will escape from this situation, giving us everything from complex memorization routines of the route his car is taking, to a phone conversation with his daughter that culminates in the use of dead reckoning by means of map circles, echolocation by hand grenade, and inferences made based on weather conditions, all so that Neeson can figure out where he is, and use this information to get a weapon and escape. It's far-fetched of course (I'm impressed by how nonchalantly the Istanbul police took random hand grenade explosions), but no more so than the glazed-over handwaving you find in most action films, and the detail to which the film goes works in its favor, lending the scene a patina (if nothing more) of believability.

Things Havoc disliked:  I never understood the hoopla over the original Taken. In my mind it was a formulaic, average action flick, elevated slightly by a few above-average scenes. And yet Taken became so iconic (the famous "I will find you" montage attained internet meme status) that I can today cite its title in a pun and be reasonably sure that everyone will understand what I mean. I didn't hate Taken, mind you, it was an all right action flick, but I don't understand what made it so special. And given that, I don't think this movie was made for me.

The premise is decent enough. Neeson, having slaughtered several busloads of people in the first movie through methods that were not entirely ethical (or sane), now faces a large quantity of people who have fairly specific things to say to him about having electrocuted their sons/brothers to death. As a motive to kick the action off, this is a great idea, deconstructing the first movie as a means for beginning the second, but unfortunately, outside of a couple minor scenes, the film never makes anything of this concept. The bad guys are simply another horde of faceless men out to get our determined hero, and the legitimate grievances they have with him are only ever addressed in the most perfunctory manner. The reliably awesome Rade Šerbedžija, brought in here to serve as Neeson's primary antagonist, is tied heavily into this reciprocity concept, and yet because the film drops it so perfunctorily, the result is that Šerbedžija is barely in the film at all.

So what do we get instead? Action scenes. Boring, repetitive, absurdly over-edited action scenes. The director of this film, Olivier Megaton, seems intent on proving my theory that no man who ever changed his name into something sounding supposedly "badass" has ever made a good film. Shot lengths in fight scenes are about three nanoseconds long, alternating between shots of Neeson holding a gun and looking concerned with distance shots of someone with noticeably different hair color performing martial arts. Neeson is 60 years old (though he does look younger), and I don't blame him for being unable to do all his own stunts here. But the least that a director can do is try and make the stunts look reasonably plausible, or at least sew the stunt double work together competently. There's exactly one fight scene, near the end of the film, which while completely contrived, does actually look like the sort of fight two older men with military training might have. Everything else is the invincible hero shooting, beating, and stabbing his way through villains that can't threaten him, all shot in a confused, hyper-frenetic manner that prevents you from seeing what's going on. Occasionally they add a car chase.

Final thoughts:  No, Taken 2 isn't horrible. I've seen far worse action films this year. But there's just nothing about it that's at all 'special', even by the standards of Liam-Neeson-revenge films (a surprisingly large genre). Granted, I didn't think there was anything too special about the first Taken either, but that movie at least had good, competent action with a strong narrative and interesting moral questions. This one seems to have somehow ratcheted the stakes down, like we're watching a direct-to-DVD sequel that got somehow released in cinemas, and none of the promising elements that the first film had have been followed up on.

Go see this movie if you must, but whatever it was you people found in the original Taken, I doubt seriously you're gonna find it here.

Final Score:  4.5/10

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