It's hard to overstate how much gut-level fun the first Taken is. It's the kind of reactionary, xenophobic, sexually legalistic, kill-and-kill-and-kill-again action movie that even a devout liberal could love, a rockin', ridiculous thing created when brazenly opportunistic show people stepped into the void left by a responsibility-abdicating Steven Seagal, a movie that allowed audiences to feel good about vengeance and righteous torture again, a blood-dripping cheeseburger for the murder-hungry. In my house it is affectionately referred to as Tooken.
Clearly, after that first kiss from a machine gun, a sequel with additional takings was in order, something to fulfill the franchise promise it constructed. There would be more surgical strikes on bad guys, there would be more terse cell phone conversations in which Liam Neeson implored endangered loved ones to "focus" and get ready for the bullet spray, there would be more neck snapping, there would be more NEESONING all around.
And thanks to director Olivier Megaton, that sequel is here. Except it plays like a somewhat more violent and much less lively remake of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Plot, schnott: Neeson, ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) are visiting Istanbul. The father of a man Neeson eliminated the first time around wants revenge. To that end a crew of tracksuit-wearing thugs kidnap Dad and Mom, leaving the iPad-and-boyfriend-distracted daughter to hide in closets and have hysterical phone conversations with tied-up Dad. But by this stage in the saga everyone knows that this family is made of superhuman action DNA, so they get the job done. Dad, after all, is supernaturally intuitive, can sense danger through the pores in his unusually youthful, sixty-something skin and map his own whereabouts like a self-hunting bloodhound. And Mom, even while throat-slashed and hanging upside down in chains like an extra in Hostel, enjoys a relatively unmussed ordeal. These folks even have their own coded language, starting with the word "taken," which in normal life is used in domestic communications such as, "Have you taken the remainder of those tortilla chips and Velveeta I had been saving to make Nachos Magnificos?" but that in this particular closed linguistic circle means, "About to get beheaded and my limbs sold to various fetish-based brothels located just outside of the Eurozone. Send backup." There's not much to worry about. They're going to be fine.
But Mr. Megaton. Dude. What have you done? How did you choke on this so hard? How did you take pre-existing excitement and invert it into dull repetition? How did you stage what should have been motion-sickness-making car chases and create what amounts to strobe-y slideshows of windshields and bumpers? How did you abandon logic, energy and story craft all at the same time? How did you come to decide that Maggie Grace would perform a significant chunk of the action while Neeson stayed sidelined in captivity? How did you then come to decide that she could convincingly drive a car and throw grenades like Steve McQueen? Is this a joke you're playing on everybody? Are you on a secret mission to take Neeson's character's "particular set of skills" and use your own un-skills to negate every spark of fictional life they possess?
Because if so, then I guess you win. You drove it off a cliff and exploded it into a stupid ball of fire. Hope you're proud of all that ruining you just did there. But here's an idea for the producers: let Drew Barrymore or Miranda July direct the next one. The only way is up.