This thoroughly nasty sequel to 2008's Taken is a textbook example of moral and creative meltdown.
"I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder." That's what Werner Herzog says in Grizzly Man, his moving parable exploring the paradoxical relationship between man and nature. He is, of course, describing the violent, random nature of life and death.
And yet he could well be pitching the idea for Pierre Morel's 2008 film, Taken, the heroically berserk hostage thriller that surprised everyone by transforming hitherto Serious Actor, Liam Neeson, into the middle-aged action hero du jour. And it made an obscene amount of cash in the process. Presumably some of it went to producer and co-writer Luc Besson, who returns for this rotten sequel that shows just how far the apple's fallen from the Nikita tree.
The original film had a certain vulgar charm: an indecent, guilty pleasure in the Death Wish mould, it was silly, ultraviolent and relentlessly nasty. But the last thing the world needed was another one, and so Taken 2 is about as welcome as a bigot at a wedding. It's the latest entry in a franchise no one wants, huffing and puffing its way over the blockbuster horizon like a hobbled, xenophobic chariot.
The premise is an anaemic reworking of the original Taken set-up: while working in Istanbul, retired CIA operative Bryan Mills (played with minimal gusto by Neeson, who has rarely looked less interested in giving an actual performance) finds himself at the centre of a kidnap plot masterminded by Albanian crime lord, Murad (Rade Serbedzija), who just so happens to be the father of one of the evil human trafficking scumbags brought down in the original film.
Tied up in chains and with the odds working against him, Mills has to rely on his daughter's help and his own ingenuity in order to escape his captors and once again save his family from the clutches of assorted Eastern European brutes. (Incidentally, the Murad character seems to have a never-ending supply of sons he's prepared to sacrifice in order to get to Neeson. Is he the Screamin' Jay Hawkins of the Albanian gangster scene? It's a mystery that's never sufficiently addressed.)
This wonky follow-up is directed Olivier Megaton, the man behind last year's Columbiana and whose charming moniker derives from the fact he was born on the twentieth anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima (fact). What a pity, then, that Taken 2 is about as incendiary as a clump of wet twigs.
In fact, it's less of a film, more a series of increasingly strange editing decisions threaded together by a patchwork screenplay that ignores everything that made the original such a hoot. The result is neither bloodthirsty enough to satisfy fans of the first film, nor sufficiently entertaining on its own terms to win over a new audience looking to experience Neeson's "particular set of skills" for the very first time.
One of the main problems is that Megaton's flair for explosive nomenclature does not extend to cutting together a cohesive action sequence. Punches fly, but never land, and random henchmen tumble to the ground for no apparent reason. At one point, Neeson appears to dispatch a key player simply by slowly wafting his palm in the general direction of his opponent's face.
The film feels curiously neutered and unambitious – the final showdown, for instance, sees Neeson face off against an anonymous tubby in a tracksuit. The lasting impression is that of a cheap, straight-to-DVD, knock-off version of Taken rather than an official sequel.
One thing Taken 2 does share with its predecessor is its sheer and utter terror of all things foreign and un-American. There's a telling moment when Neeson's on-screen daughter Kim (played by a returning Maggie Grace) evades potential captors while hiding in a hotel closet. Neeson, at this point a hostage himself, calls her on a tiny mobile phone he keeps in his shoes (seriously) and asks "can you get out of the closet safely?" which she does.
She then immediately arms herself with grenades and other heavy weaponry. That's the ethos of the Taken films in a nutshell: They're not afraid of exploring the terrors of the wider world, but only if they're armed to the teeth.
The sequel no one wants from the director no one likes. Neeson looks cool on the poster, though.
Cheap but not that nasty. The film fails to thrill on every conceivable level.
Unnecessary, perfunctory, ramshackle: Taken 2 is all these things and less.