Like a good military invasion, Taken's greatest strength was the element of surprise. When it arrived in January of 2009, it wasn't even screened for critics, and a roundtable interview with stars Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace brought out the kind of spare attendance you usually see for minor indies. Nobody expected it to do much better than make back its budget, and when it became a global phenomenon it didn't just launch Neeson as the unexpected action hero of our time, but the inevitable sequel too.
Like The Hangover Part II-- another sequel to an unexpected smash success-- Taken 2 essentially just recycles the formula from the first film and sets it in a different location. For some reason, though, it feels less lazy when Neeson and director Olivier Megaton do it, especially because they've made the slight twist of including daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) in the action, and reveal that Bryan Mills essentially brings the villain upon himself, as a direct results of all the dudes he killed in the first film. It's a very, very bold move for an action movie sequel to open with the mass funeral of all the baddies killed in the first film, and it gives us this film's villain as a kind of parallel universe Albanian gangster version of Neeson's Bryan Mills; played by Rade Serbedzija, he's just a grieving dad who wants to get back at the brash American who tortured and killed his son Who can't understand that?
That whole "violence begets more violence" theme doesn't really play out that well in Taken 2, since it is, after all, another movie about Liam Neeson crashing around an ancient city and making people pay. This time he's in Istanbul, on a job protecting a rich sheikh (or something), when ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and daughter surprise him for an impromptu family vacation. Taken 2 avoids the weird xenophobia of the first film ("If you are a pretty white American girl, you WILL be sold into slavery the second your passport is stamped") by having the bad guys specifically targeting Bryan and family, with plans to kidnap all three and… make them pay in some vague, PG-13 way. Kim escapes the kidnapping through sheer chance, and thanks to her dad's MacGyver-style skills and a hidden cell phone, works with him to help her parents escape.
From there it's torture scene, chase scene, car chase scene, foot chase scene, fight scene, fight scene, verbal fight scene, all taking place in the twisty Istanbul streets in what must have been an impressive feat of crowd control. At one point Kim and her dad crash through the gates of the American embassy, and put in a call to a well-placed friend to avoid being shot-- not the finest choice in a time when actual American embassies are being bombed. Though, before that Kim has been tossing grenades on to nearby rooftops to help her dad figure out his location, and nobody in Istanbul seems to mind, so perhaps this is a parallel universe in which an entire gang of Albanians will stop at nothing to murder one man, and nobody cares about bombs going off in the center of one of the world's oldest cities.
Megaton, stepping in for Taken's Pierre Morel, keeps up his predecessor's frenzied pace but none of his gonzo style, making all the action scenes feel more expected and by-the-book-- yet another way that this sequel lacks the element of surprise. Though Serbedzija is automatically a more memorable villain than anyone in the first film, he's keep apart from Neeson for too long-- their final confrontation is genuinely tense, but it comes far too late. And while Grace acquits herself well as a girl thrown in the deep end to rescue her parents, she's not in the film enough either-- and Janssen is essentially in Grace's role from the previous film, a MacGuffin to move Neeson forward. Co-writers Luc Besson (also the producer) and Robert Mark Kamen had the chance to change up the formula by making Taken 2 a family affair, but leaning too hard on what they knew already worked, they leave Neeson to do it all by himself. He's up to the task, of course, but also seems to realize things are getting a little repetitive.
Taken is, rightly, fast becoming a modern action classic, and Taken 2 is a paler imitation of the original, playing the kind of safe notes that you do when you're a franchise and not some weirdo underdog. But it's also got enough of the same DNA, and a few tricks up its own sleeve, to stand on its own-- at the very least, when Liam Neeson has a gun and a leather jacket and a European street to run down, you're going to want to follow him.