After a largely successful run of efficient actioners, the lightning-bottling factory that is Luc Besson's EuropaCorp studios has cranked out an obvious dud. The prospects of a Taken sequel promising more of the same were robust: Liam Neeson's bearish frame hulking through a foreign port, snapping arms, punching throats, and resourcefully allocating his cellphone minutes. As indebted as the Pierre Morel-directed Taken was to a this-time-it's-personal crossbreeding of the Bourne and Death Wish films, it also minted its own generic boilerplate: Quite simply, someone gets taken and Neeson's ambiguously affiliated secret agent/defense specialist takes them back.
Taken 2 offers a modest reversion on the established formula. Here, the kinfolk of the scores of Albanian slavers Bryan Mills (Neeson) offs in the original, led by Rade Šerbedžija's snub-nosed criminal patriarch, plot to abduct Mills, haul him back to their hilly village, and drain his blood into the soil. It's diabolical enough. But when Mills's ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), and daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), surprise him while he's completing a security contract in Turkey (working for a jolly Arab sheik, perhaps as recompense for shooting a bulbous sultan caricature through the eyes in the first film's climax), our resolute hero's knocked out of the equation for far too long. For this second taken-ing, the tables have turned, with the re-taker becoming the taken, strung up in an ad hoc Turkish prison and left to plot his MacGyver-ish escape. This leaves Grace's perpetual teenager to scamper around the rooftops of Istanbul, chucking grenades around so her father can triangulate his own whereabouts.
Granted, Grace has earned her Bessonian chops after playing second fiddle to Guy Pearce's wiseass space cowboy in last year's Lockout. Even if it's now easier to buy her as a semi-competent junior ass-kicking partner and getaway driver (she's featured in early scenes boning up for her license, then listening to that "Real Hero" song from Drive on her iPhone, portending her turn as Daddy's little sidekick), the cutting between hers and Neeson's plotlines derails the runaway pacing that kept the original flick chugging along so forcefully. Where Taken was driven by its deadline-oriented plot, Taken 2 trades down-to-the-wire tension for scenes of literal ticking clocks: Neeson tracking his movement across Istanbul by the beat of his wristwatch, Grace keeping a watchful eye on her phone's on-board timer. With more or less precisely the same elements in play, Taken 2 feels not so much bloated as diffuse, its momentum slackened as Olivier Megaton struggles to drive together his two narrative strands. His hyper-hackish direction, which swaps in flat fast-cutting for Morel's crisper compositions, doesn't help anything, proving that all the sub-Besson helmers in the EuropaCorp stable aren't of equivalent stock.
Some of the basic pleasures of the original remain intact (nobody shoots up a small room of bearded Eastern European men like Neeson), but ultimately Taken 2 feels compromised. Despite its PG-13 rating, the original film grappled with some seriously icky themes (sex slavery, specifically). Taken 2 never feels excitingly unsettling, nesting its soggy themes in some cycle of violent nonsense, made especially laughable considering that Grace's character is essentially being educated by her semi-sociopathic shoot-first father. (Ninety percent of the dialogue in Taken 2 runs like: "Dad, you just shot a cop!," "I had to, he was with them!," and so on.)
Moreover, the sufficient success of the first film has watered down Neeson's characterization. The sequel plays the overprotective father shtick for laughs, especially in early scenes as Neeson plants a GPS device in his daughter's cellphone and then tracks her to her bleary-eyed boyfriend's dilapidated L.A. frat house. Since Taken, Mills has become a thing, which pushes Neeson's performance into mugging self-parody. Then there's Grace. Accepting the actress as an over-giddily 16-year-old U2 super fan skipping around her stepdad's mansion in pigtails and high-top Converse All-Stars seemed like a nice incidental joke circa 2008. It's now entirely impossible to imagine that Grace, nearly 30, is somehow still a virginal, milkshake-glugging teenie bopper pulling off a closed-quarters police chase getaway on a learner's permit.
Taken 2 feels most like its vastly superior predecessor in its more intimate moments, not much in the mob-hideout shoot-ups of bone-breaking back-alley getaways as when Mills is talking Kim through an escape route, calmly instructing her in how to establish a perimeter on a map using a pen and shoelace and egging her through her first high-speed car chase. And where the original put the screws to the notion of U.S. interventionism (and the ineffectuality of French bureaucracy), Taken 2 does something in the way of bringing Mills's contracted killer instincts home, suggesting that the same "very particular set of skills" that make him a good security-expert-counterterrorist-spy-agent-guy also make him a good father. For one thing, he's incredibly punctual. Too bad the film itself can't keep pace.