What I like about Taken is that it’s a bit like Commando. As we all know, Commando is one of the best movies ever made. To rescue his daughter, Arnie kills an army load of scumbags with little regard for the consequences of his violent actions. The film is saying, “If someone kidnaps your daughter, it’s okay to kill three hundred people to get her back. The courts will not hold you to account. The presiding judge may even invite you over for supper and brandy and cigars to congratulate you personally for a job well done.”
Taken is a modern-day version of this charming tale of extreme violence in the pursuit of one’s kidnapped offspring. When I say “modern version”, it’s modern only in the sense that it’s less cartoonish and the violence is nastier. The plot is simpler too. Where the deluded despot of Commando cooked up the ill-advised kidnap scheme to get Arnie to do his bidding (as if!), Taken is just the unsuspecting bad guys nabbing the daughter of their worst nightmare.
Ultimately, whichever way both films start out, it’s about one thing. The hero is at point A. His daughter is at point B. In-between those two points is where the scumbags are. Point C is mission success, smiles and high fives all round. Roll credits.
Commando has the good sense to end it there (with help from Arnie who, other than for a couple of his more iconic characters, had something of a no sequel policy back in the day). In John Matrix’s world, where revenge fantasy is very real, and accepted, he’s free to return to his log cabin in the mountains, where he can chop wood, feed deer, eat sandwiches, and puzzle over the gender of the latest pop star. The story’s been told. Violent retribution on a massive scale is the true path to peace and enlightenment.
In an ideal world, Taken would have ended with the first movie as well. It came out of nowhere, and was a surprise hit, grossing over 200 million dollars worldwide on a modest 25 million dollar budget. The idea of Liam Neeson as an action hero was a fresh one for many people. His glowering presence, combined with an economical plot focused like a laser beam, made for one of the best action movies in years.
A tough act to follow then, and I’m not denying that a sequel with Neeson mercilessly punching people in the face didn’t appeal. It did. But deep down, I knew it wouldn’t have the excitement of the first film.
That the sequel exists at all, takes away some of the shine of the first one. In that, there are no consequences to Neeson’s actions. It’s a massively enjoyable, violent, action fantasy, far removed from any sort of reality, and all the better for it. But in Taken 2, the friends and family of all the scumbags that Neeson killed in the rescue of his daughter, are out for revenge. Turns out there are consequences after all!
Part of the delight of Taken was seeing a vast criminal network completely underestimate the man hunting down his daughter. They were all, “Who the fuck is this Bryan Mills guy? He did what? Killed an entire building full of gangsters? And he’s called Bryan, you say?”
This time, it’s personal. They have a plan. They’re gunning for him. They don’t even have to do their homework to know that first time round, he dismantled their organisation with his special set of skills. If anything, they should be overestimating him, leaving nothing to chance.
But because they work on the same level of knowledge and incompetence as in Taken, they seem less threatening than ever. They can’t even capture his daughter who runs across the rooftops of Istanbul, lobbing grenades into the street, so that her dad can work out from the speed of sound, how close she is to him.
Like that scene, most of the action is ludicrous, staged by director, Olivier Megaton, who seems to be producer and writer Luc Besson’s go-to-guy when Louis Leterrier is otherwise engaged. He hails from the school of action directors where to make an action scene fast paced, the editing must be fast paced too. Thus, Taken 2’s action ends up as not much more than a mess of frustrating, unexciting, flashing images that somehow don’t relate to the cut that comes before, and the cut that comes after.
Neeson says at one point, that he’s tired of it all. I believed him! Although I suppose it depends on how big the cheque is, if he finds a sudden spring in his step for Taken 3. They’ve taken his daughter. They’ve taken his wife. They’ve even taken him. What else can they take?
How about his self-respect if he signs on the dotted line?