Sunday, October 21, 2012

Latest Liam Neeson franchise finds itself taken in new direction

The original Taken film came out of nowhere in 2008. It affected its magic by weaving a simple but effectively told tale: ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills stares down impossible odds to save his kidnapped daughter from a gang of detestable international criminals. It didn't try to blow up the plot; it was based on a cat and mouse game of finding the next clue to get one step closer to the thugs. It even inspired a massive internet meme. Inevitably, the sequel seeks to broaden and expand its focus, but in the process risks losing it.

Taken 2 opens over a graveside in Albania, where the scumbags Neeson shot up in the first film are being laid to rest. It seems even psychotic homicidal pimps have folks who care about them, and they aren't going to let this shit stand. Oh, no. This time it's Mills who finds himself captured  along with his wife Lenore, and their best hope of survival rests on the shoulders of their bumbling daughter Kim.

Hold up, nobody make a move. We gotta give the high priority target a chance to slip away.

Like its predecessor, the tension in Taken 2 is coiled like a tightly wound spring. It's obvious what's going to happen, but as to when it actually goes down the film does a decent job of putting on a poker face. Everything builds up slowly and sensibly, although the actual moment of abduction in Taken 2 is nowhere near as shocking as it was in the first film. Kim being pulled out from under the bed was a moment tailor-made to get the viewers' blood boiling.

That vibe is ruined at the moment of capture in Taken 2 because the thugs inexplicably allow Mills to make a phone call to his daughter enabling her escape. If the thugs snag the entire Mills family, naturally  that's ballgame. But there's no sensible reason why the thugs allow him to give Kim escape instructions in the specific moment that they intend to knock him senseless and drag him away.

Throughout the rest of the film the Mills family does more damage to Istanbul than the actual criminal syndicate they're battling. Their reign of terror sees the Mills family lobbing live grenades all over the city, vandalizing the U.S. Embassy, dodging fire from an M-16 that surely should have killed them, wrecking an entire patrol worth of police cars, and even straight up shooting a cop. The grenade lobbing is explained as a method for Kim to pinpoint her father's location. By hearing the sound of the blasts, Mills directs Kim to the criminals' hideout, at which point she delivers him a very important item. So essentially Kim is a parcel delivery service. One that lobs grenades in all directions.

Rain or shine, this shit's gotta get delivered.

Perhaps there are more intelligent ways of finding him? Mills practiced considerably smarter methods in the first film. For example, Bryan allowing himself to be accosted by a pimp in order to pin a tracking device on him comes across as clever, covert, and spy-like, and he never had to resort to tactics that should reasonably have the entire Turkish army descending upon you.

Like the first film, the villains themselves are remarkably nondescript. They're said to be from Albania, but as usual appear to be your typical mishmash of Indo-Eurasian Middle Eastern stock villains with no other distinguishable features other than their mentality of "Grrr! I want revenge!" Films like these could have tons of room for evolution if they could get over their stereotypes and actually color and develop their villains properly.

The acting performances get the job done. Maggie Grace as Kim is most notable, as she does an admirable job of pulling off a Harry Mason "hey I'm just an ordinary Joe and I'm not used to having to dodge bullets and fight for my life" type of vibe. She shows extreme stress under duress while holding things together and providing moments for the audience to pump their fists over.

Rade Serbedzija plays a cold, honor driven mastermind in the role of lead villain Murad Krasniqi, willing to discard any discernible shred of logic in his pursuit of vengeance against Mills. As for Neeson himself, it's pretty evident what to expect from him in roles like this. He's the man with the plan, the fatherly intel expert who always knows how to navigate every situation. The father-daughter bonding, spirit of cooperation between Bryan and Kim is one of the film's major successes. Incidentally  he also has the ability to snap someone's neck by simply putting his hand on someone's face and applying a gentle nudge. It feels like a combination between special ops training and Darth Vader's force choke.

Liam Neeson: so well trained he can even use the force.

Being that the film is shot on location in Istanbul, the set pieces are naturally gorgeous. The hotel scenes where the Mills family stays in the beginning of the film show off the breathtaking splendor and grandeur of the city, while the action in the streets later on show off the working class side of Istanbul. The score is subdued, but becomes appropriately cinematic and dramatic during Neeson's final fistfight against Krasniqi's second in command. In one scene where Bryan explores the underbelly of Istanbul, the film relies on low key bubbling techno that sounds like something from the Perfect Dark soundtrack.

The product of director Olivier Megaton generally successful due to its unique and invigorating take on the modern action genre. Rather than simply repeating the formula from the first film, Megaton and screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen come up with a new take on the same theme and find a way to make it work. It does not top the original screenplay. There are times when Taken 2 fumbles its momentum and quite simply feels more clumsy and less surefooted than its predecessor. It may not gain the same sort of cult status the original film did, but Taken 2 should at least hit the spot for those hungry for more from the franchise.

No comments: