Review: Underwhelming ‘Taken 2’ fulfills the sequel law of diminishing returns

At this point, it’s safe to say “True Lies 2” is never going to happen, no matter how much Tom Arnold wishes it would.

The sad thing about that is there was a perfectly natural sequel built into the DNA of the first film, and even better, they cast is just right by accident.  When Eliza Dushku played the daughter of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis in the first film, that was before “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” and Dushku was still very young.  In the years since, she’s grown into a credible action lead, thanks in large part to her years of working with Joss Whedon as the morally compromised Faith.  The first film dealt with the way spouses keep secrets within a marriage and how much stronger you are as a duo when you’re able to finally see each other clearly without any lies to separate you.  The sequel could easily have been about that moment when a child finally starts to see their parents as people instead of just “parents,” and how that adjustment can be difficult.  Putting Dushku in the middle of a spy caper with her parents could have paid off beautifully and actually expanded on the original’s ideas thematically.

“Taken 2” is a follow up to 2008’s surprise monster hit starring Liam Neeson, and I’ve gotta say… there is no cushier gig in film these days than working in the Luc Besson action factory.  Robert Mark Kamen, Besson’s co-writer these days, has made an incredibly comfortable career out of writing movies like “Kiss Of The Dragon,” “The Transporter,” “Columbiana,” and, of course, “Taken.”  These are formula movies, no doubt about it, but they’ve figured out how to class up these b-action films enough that they are able to attract real movie starts to them, and at a time when the industry seems to be contracting, they produce movies that are given the full theatrical treatment that, in other hands, would be straight to DVD and forgotten immediately.

The reason I brought up “True Lies” is because “Taken” is also an action series that depends on the dynamics of family to drive the drama.  The first film was about the difficulty of finding a role in the life of your child after a divorce, especially when there’s a new husband in the mix making you look bad.  More than anything, “Taken” was about proving to your daughter that you’ll be there for her, no matter what, and that no one loves your kids more than you do.  The second film starts with Kim (Maggie Grace) trying to recover from the trauma of being kidnapped and almost sold into sex slavery.  At the same time, Lenore (Famke Janssen) is having trouble with her second husband.  Both of them find that Bryan (Liam Neeson) is the shoulder they can cry on, the dependable presence in their lives, and whether it’s Kim taking driving lessons so she can get her license or Lenore needing to vent, Bryan’s there for them.

While the film starts with an interesting idea, it doesn’t really do much with it.  As the film opens, we see Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija) at a mass funeral.  They are burying the approximately 7000 people that Liam Nesson beat to death with his giant ham fists in the first movie, and Krasniqi swears that he will get revenge on the man responsible.  It humanizes the faceless bad guys from the first movie, although it’s hard to sympathize with the revenge plot because they were, after all, into human trafficking.  But the urge is a good one, dramatically speaking, and there’s some tension built in the first half-hour or so as Bryan prepares for a business trip to Istanbul, inviting Lenore and Kim along as a last-minute vacation.  That puts them in harm’s way as well when Krasniqi’s men attack, leaving Kim as the only one who’s free while both of her parents are taken.  If the movie was about Kim having to grow into her role as her father’s daughter while her parents were both trapped, that could have been interesting.  The film even plays with that idea for a little while.  Ultimately, though, the film just feels like a retread of the sort of action we saw in the first one, with Neeson beating the hell out of a new batch of faceless bad guys.

Since Grace’s character arc feels truncated and the revenge plot seems perfunctory, it’s hard to really invest in the sequel.  Competently directed by Olivier Megaton, the film offers enough action set pieces to please the audiences that will show up this weekend, but none that are particularly memorable.  Even the most clever moments, like a high-speed car chase through Istanbul with Grace driving, play out in fairly simple fashion, action scenes that aren’t particularly exciting.  While they are slick in terms of presentation, they’re not built to be memorable.  I like the idea of an unlicensed driver having to handle the car while her father barks directions at her and shoots at the bad guys, but even after they introduce the idea, they barely make good use of it.  And as bad guys go, Krasniqi goes from cold-eyed monster to totally defanged doofus pretty quickly.

Ultimately, the audience for this film probably won’t care about missed thematic opportunities or consistent character writing, but it’s a disappointment.  Besson and Kamen have this amazing machine they’ve built to turn out one action film after another, but this one feels phoned in, like they made the deal before they had a good idea for what story to tell.  Neeson and Grace and Janssen all do their best with their parts, but I’m really confused at this point about how old Maggie Grace is playing.  The milestones Kim is reaching in her life are the milestones of a sophomore or junior in high school, but Grace is obviously older than that, which just makes it strange.

I would be surprised if there’s a “Taken 3” after this.  It feels like they’ve already run out of steam before the sequel even ends, and ultimately, this sort of microwaved retread is just frustrating when it should be thrilling, overly familiar instead of exciting.  This is another perfect example of franchise building when there’s nothing about the first film that demands an ongoing series.  Even more frustrating, it looks like there was a good version of this that could have been made, and they missed it even when it was right in front of them.

“Taken 2” opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.