When the first Taken film hit cinemas in 2008, it took everyone by surprise. It arrived with little fanfare as a $25 million Euro-thriller with then 56-year-old Liam Neeson as its unlikely action hero. Even the tall Irish actor himself recently admitted he expected it to go straight to DVD.
It didn't. It went gangbusters, grabbing $227 million worldwide and solid reviews as a gritty, graphic, old- school European action-thriller. Not surprisingly, French action maestro Luc Besson (Leon, Nikita) had his fingerprints all over it as a co-writer and producer.
It also gave Neeson a rebirth as a senior citizen action star, and he's since enjoyed a purple patch kicking butt and taking names in Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, Unknown, The Grey and Battleship. Now 60, Neeson is the screen's most unlikely action star, like a new-age Chuck Norris standing at 193cms with a broad Irish brogue. Taken 2, therefore, was always assured.
Unfortunately, this watered-down, sanitised and Hollywood-ised sequel is a major let-down. All the low-key bouts of brutal violence have been toned down to a disappointing M-rating in Australia (the original was MA15+), while the narrative is nothing but a re-tread with little or no surprises. It's as if Hollywood power-players have hijacked it from its European progenitors and turned it into an audience-friendly action flick for teens and families at the local megaplex.
Barely a drop of blood is spilt. That said, Taken 2 is not without its giddy and often ludicrous low-brow highs.
It's set several years after former CIA spook Bryan Mills (Neeson) rescued his virginal daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) from nasty sex-slave traffickers in Europe. Forget that the over-protective single father was against Kim going to Paris in the first place. Here he actually invites both Kim and her mother Lennie (Famke Janssen) to join him in Istanbul - next door to the Middle East - where he has three days work.
In a nice inversion of the original narrative, this time it's the parents who are taken and the daughter who must rescue them, with the help of daddy's "particular set of skills," of course. Besson also switches the original's hostage crisis into a revenge tale, where the shady older relatives of the Albanians Mills dispatched in the original come gunning for him and his family.
Despite that narratively rich set-up, new director Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3) has no idea how to shoot action sequences, placing his shaky hand-held cameras far too close to his actors and using the kind of strobe-light editing techniques that make it almost impossible to see what's actually happening.
Worse still, all the bone-crunching punch-ups and take-downs have been edited down to an audience-friendly M-rating. There's none of the visible and audible violence - the cracks of noses being broken or teeth being chipped - that made the original such a jolting hit. You can bet on a much better uncut version on DVD down the line.
But as said, Taken 2 is not without its giddy delights. Neeson delivers some similarly gruff ultimatums as if he's reciting Chekov. Kim drives a yellow taxi in a thrilling car chase through Istanbul's cobbled streets. And a hilariously preposterous sequence sees the captured Mills call Kim and direct her to his location using a map, a pen, a shoelace and a grenade.
Still, if Besson and Co had really pushed the boundaries by setting Taken 2 in the US or by bringing Mills' three CIA buddies into the fray, it could have been a sequel that delivered the dark edges it deserved.
Taken 2 is now screening.