Rating:“I had no choice,” Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills says to his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) after shooting a police officer in Istanbul, operating on pure instinct. Taken 2 is the type of movie that makes us fully believe this statement, shielding its protagonists from the perilous world of complex moral calculations. But we can forgive this simplification somewhat, given that Neeson is fighting for his family’s life, and who are we to say that anyone should risk the most precious thing they have? Coincidentally, the film’s villain, a boss in the Albanian mafia played by Slavoj Žižek-lookalike Rade Šerbedžija, is also motivated by the same protectiveness, turned corrosive and deadly and twisted into vengeance after his family members were murdered by Neeson in the series’ first film. Director Olivier Megaton and producer and co-writer Luc Besson litter their film with these and other half-formed insights, but they never succeed in creating the type of structure that might force us to grapple with them, which would frankly be a welcome diversion in this stultifying film. Megaton, true to his name, is an overbearing force in the director’s chair, blunting us with high-impact action sequences and empty swagger, and Taken 2 quickly squanders the modest goodwill it accrues early on. It’s impossible not to wonder why Besson continues to employ a director who seems intent on letting all Besson’s best ideas slip through his fingers.
Indeed, Besson’s focus on the role of producer and screenwriter in the last decade has resulted in a fascinating body of work. This is largely due to his willingness, and seeming desire, to incorporate genuine political substance into taut and lean action thrillers. These films don’t advance theses or argue talking points, but they create terrain whose exploration surfaces some of the unavoidable socio-political issues of the day. His most capable collaborator so far seems to be Pierre Morel, the helmer of the original Taken, because Morel’s cleanly propulsive approach to narrative generates moral significance: in a world moving at such a fast pace, how does one pause to reflect on the moral consequences of one’s actions? That action films up the ante on pacing almost by requirement makes Morel’s work particularly efficient.
One of Morel’s virtues in Taken, like its companion piece From Paris With Love, was the way he so casually and obliquely interrogates one of the unfortunate features of the action genre: how do we square, in these films, the tendency to encourage audiences not to care about the often nameless bodies being blown away by our hero? Every death cannot be lingered over, especially when the protagonist is driven, as in both Taken movies, to move ever onward towards his goal of protecting his family, working as he is against a clock. While Morel takes Besson’s best ideas and magnifies them, placing them in proper context, it’s difficult to tell whether Megaton fully apprehends their import. When Neeson says “I had no choice,” a moment obviously scripted by Besson and his collaborator Robert Mark Kamen and one that likely did not receive the input of Megaton, there is neither a pause nor the proper acknowledgement of this lack of pause. Instead, Megaton segues right into a car chase whose large swaths of collateral damage seem merely decorative, indexical illustrations of how “badass” this chase is. No gravity is felt here, and in fact, Megaton is more than likely to suspend it altogether by using slow motion to linger on car flying through the air after a crash or explosion.
Megaton is clearly interested in other things here, turning Besson’s modestly thoughtful work into a series of cheap thrills. Megaton takes Besson’s implied sense of moral gravity and makes it cartoonish, using it to buttress the sense of no-consequences coolness that radiates from Neeson. In the film’s best and most exciting sequence, Neeson’s character, chained up but never immobilized—he is every bit the modern update on MacGyver—uses a concealed cell phone to communicate with his daughter and steer her to safety. He tells her where to hide and then, when she is safe, instructs her how to help him identify his own location. He does this by having her toss grenades, packed neatly in his suitcase-cum-armory, so that he can assess her distance from him by listening to the explosions. Thus, rather than embrace the premise’s hint of moral awareness as Morel might have, Megaton uses wanton destruction—the first grenade rolls under a car parked on a roof, because the more damage, the better—to enhance the film’s sense of reckless adventure, which flatters the well-intentioned heroes at the center who are given the latitude to create chaos in order to achieve their aims. Instead of recoiling in the face of carnage, Megaton finds hollow, dim excitement in it, and though he is of French origin, he seems to live vicariously through and plays up the film’s jingoism of the American abroad who gives himself free reign to do whatever he feels he needs.
This jingoism is not necessarily built into the film’s premise. In From Paris With Love and Taken, Morel managed to complicate our relationship to the mechanics of the action genre and the way they play out within the film’s global geo-politics, but Megaton lacks not only his savvy but also the interest in loftier matters. This is unsurprisingly from a man who took his name in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombings (also his birthday). Megaton lacks even Michael Bay’s commitment to excess: this is a director who managed to fumble a movie concept that mostly involved Zoe Saldana sleekly stalking about in a bodysuit (Colombiana), resulting in a so-so mess that is sterile and bland. With Taken 2, his third collaboration with Besson, Megaton guides a moderately interesting premise, as far as sequels like this go, into territory too unimaginative even to offend. Besson should fire him.