For many, the highlight of Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s Life’s Too Short is the moment Liam Neeson strolls into Gervais’ office to try his hand at comedy. “I’m a funny guy, aren’t I?” he asks, before destroying the improvisational scenarios they throw at him by directing them all onto deadly serious, depressing territory. “I’ve contracted aids” declares his hypothetical Greengrocer, “I’m riddled with it”, casting a deadly silence across the room.
The brilliance of the skit comes from Neeson’s acute self-awareness, which underpins his ability to craft a self-deprecating pastiche to dazzling comic effect.
It’s unfortunate then, that the man who has so competently filled the shoes of iconic roles from Oskar Schindler to Qui-Gon Jinn temporarily lost his acute sense of self-awareness when he decided once again to take up the part of Bryan Mills for Taken 2.
It’s not that Taken 2 is bad… it’s that it’s awful. Think back to the first film; a relatively exciting new concept. It was the story of Mills, a retired CIA agent, divorced and of moderate means, turned vigilante when his daughter Kim is kidnapped in Paris. The tension in the film was drawn out nicely by its simplicity, summarised by the immortal words, “I will find you, and I will kill you”.
The film’s sequel, however, is less palatable.
It opens with the funeral of those killed by Mills in the first film. Angry Albanian Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija) declares revenge upon Mills for his wrongdoing, tossing dirt into the grave of his lost son, (the first Taken’s kidnapping Bad Guy). Bearded and foreboding, Krasniqi is the epitome of the ‘Russian/Eastern European/Middle-Eastern villain’ archetype that action movies really should have moved beyond by now.
There are hints that Mills might be able to patch things up with ex-wife Lenny, a plotline that eventually leads to her and daughter Kim joining Bryan for his business trip to Istanbul.
After a series of cut shots juxtaposing the gritty underworld of the revenge-bent Albanians with Mills’ everyday goings-on in L.A and Istanbul, the film cuts to the chase, and Krasniqi gives the go-ahead for the hit on Mills and his two female companions.
Labyrinthine Istanbul makes for some fairly exciting chases, both by car and on foot, but the fight scenes are far too slick to feel realistic. For a franchise that thrives on simplicity and grit, there are too many cut shots, and the fistfights end up feeling more disorientating than visceral.
Unconvincing choreography is not the fault of the actors, and neither is the wooden dialogue; that’s all in the script. It would be hard to give a sterling performance in a film that delivers lines such as “Mrs. Mills, you’re a brave woman and a good mother, and that’s why I’m sending you home… in pieces!” Co-writer Luc Besson really should have known better than to indulge in such dross; the least he could have done is to have made it feel tongue-in-cheek as opposed to just straight-up bad.
Perhaps my biggest gripe with Taken 2, however, is its unshakable moral certainty. Clearly, with a high-octane action adventure like this, there’s a danger in entering the cinema upon a moral high-horse; it’s Liam Neeson toting a pistol, not an on-screen adaptation of Sophie’s World. Still, it’s a film that breezes over complex ethical quandaries with the broadest brush available, and comes off looking smug and self-satisfied. Mills’ plight to protect his family is commendable, and who doesn’t like a good shoot-out, but the irritating element is that Mills is painted as a paragon of moral virtue, the perfect family man rescuing two damsels in distress. It’s a script that (literally) sticks to its guns, refusing to let an ounce of moral culpability weigh down on the shoulders of its heroic protagonist.
As a result the franchise feels dreadfully old fashioned. The Cold War ended over twenty years ago; black-and-white hero and villain don’t exist in the real world, so maybe they shouldn’t on-screen.