Taken 2 took advantage of me. Which makes sense, considering it’s the best advantage it has. Olivier Megaton’s sequel to the original film – about a father ostracized from his family for prioritizing his work, whose work then proves crucial to preserving the family unit (with shootouts!) – doesn’t have the dramatic heft of its predecessor. So it exploits the dramatic heft left over from the original Taken to make its own, weaker story more palpable. Whereas Taken worked because we felt an emotional connection to the family at the center of the story, Taken 2 works, a little at any rate, because the emotional connection from the first film lingers long enough keep this new one going for about an hour and a half.
Some time has passed since the events of Taken. Bryan Mills, still played beautifully by Liam Neeson, is once again a member of his family, and now more than ever after his ex-wife’s husband has turned into a bastard off-screen. The divorce is underway, and his daughter (Maggie Grace) and ex-wife (Famke Janssen) decide to surprise him on his business trip to Istanbul, unaware that the bereaved families of the criminals Bryan killed in the first movie have followed him there to take their revenge.
At this point, although Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Besson’s screenplay has spent more time reminding us of the original characters than actually doing anything with them, we’re on board with Taken 2. The original film’s greatest asset was that Bryan Mills wasn’t just a likable action hero, he was a lovable action hero. His motivations were based on genuine paternal kindness, making the violent acts he committed to protect his kidnapped daughter especially captivating. By Taken 2, we already understand the duality of his nature. The shock of seeing this caring soul commit acts of necessary brutality has diminished, and we’re left with Bryan just being Bryan. We like Bryan enough to enjoy this, but Taken 2 can’t coast on that. So it tries something a little new. For about twenty minutes.
With Bryan himself taken (if you will) by the villains of Taken 2, it falls to his daughter Kim to overcome the lingering trauma of the first film and save her family. With her motivation greatly overpowering her actual experience in life-threatening situations – beyond being victimized, that is – Taken 2 sets itself up as a somewhat interesting new thriller. Then it immediately throws all of its own ambitions out the door by making Bryan directly complicit in his daughter putting herself in harm’s way, even though it’s the exact opposite of his own defining motivation: to protect Kim at all costs, to himself or to others. It doesn’t help that one of the first ways he asks Kim to save the day (by this point he’s forward-thinking enough to keep a miniature cell phone on him at all times, just in case he gets kidnapped, which would be pretty ridiculous if it wasn’t something his character would totally do), is to ask Kim to throw grenades around Istanbul.
It’s an unintentionally (at least I hope) broad moment that begins a series of events that don’t fall together as naturally as those in Taken, like a car chase whose novelty seems to have been lifted directly from Naked Gun. Or a climactic fight scene arbitrarily elevated to “boss fight” status by setting it arbitrarily atop a platform like it's a round of Virtua Fighter. We don’t even know who he’s fighting, whether they’re a good fighter, and why they’re important enough to get their own big moment. It’s just the last big action scene, so they have to do “something” with it.
These scenes and smaller moments that undermine Taken 2’s credibility, like featuring not one but two distractingly memorable songs from the soundtrack to Drive, make the sequel less believable than the first. Not truly “bad,” just less believable. It’s a mere popcorn movie compared to the carefully crafted experience of the original. The final confrontation between Bryan and the film’s main antagonist may be the perfect microcosm of Taken 2's problems, with Bryan offering an unexpected solution to everyone’s problems that’s reasoned and true to his character, and perhaps even genuinely meaningful beyond the actual events of the film. The movie then decides to go somewhere else altogether, somewhere far more conventional and pointless, or at the very least overly cynical. The intelligence of the first Taken is never out of Taken 2’s reach, but nobody on the sequel – except perhaps the cast – seems particularly keen to grab it.
Taken 2 is a halfway decent follow-up, occasionally ridiculous but generally true to the characters and the tone that made the first film such a wonder. There are moments of joy in revisiting the hero down his road, and occasional moments when applause feels like an appropriate response. But somewhere down the line the plausibility gets dialed down a notch, and Taken 2 is lesser for it. It still has a particular set of skills. It’s just not very particular about how it uses them anymore.