When Taken hit screens in 2008, it benefitted from the shock of the new. Not that its content looked particularly novel. Executive producer and co-writer Luc Besson had already spent a couple of decades turning out serviceable-or-better Eurothrillers made in the model he helped create with films like La Femme Nikita. The shock came from the star doing the Eurothrilling: Liam Neeson, an actor of the first order, known for exuding introspective gentleness. Neeson was the last person most would think to cast as a pitiless killing machine, but there he was, carving his way through the Paris underworld in search of his suspiciously mature-looking teenage daughter (Maggie Grace), who’d been abducted by the sex slavers who apparently run rampant in the City Of Light.
Part of what makes Taken so entertaining, albeit sometimes unintentionally, is the way it portrays Europe as a pit of sin filled with snares for unsuspecting American innocents abroad. (Kind of like a Henry James novel, but with a lot more forced prostitution.) The rest of its appeal comes from the unapologetic simplicity of its plot, its propulsive pace, and the way Neeson took to both, bringing unsmiling gravity to what could have been a dull role. Since then, the shock has worn off. Neeson continued to explore the action world in films that are striking (The Grey), dull (Unknown), or perfunctory (The A-Team). This, it seems, is what Neeson does now, and his return to his Taken role offers few surprises.
The film also lacks the efficiency and relentlessness of the original. Back in the States and mending fences with ex-wife Famke Janssen and Grace, Neeson seems more worried about his daughter’s dating habits than the possibility of the Albanian father of one of the first film’s villains targeting him for revenge. That, it turns out, is a mistake, as is Janssen and Grace’s decision to join Neeson in Istanbul, where he has a few days to himself after finishing a security detail. What begins as a family outing, with a hint of rekindled romance between the parents, devolves into kidnapping (the word “taken” gets thrown about liberally), torture, high-speed chases, and other misadventures probably not smiled upon by the Turkish Board Of Tourism.
None of it is particularly novel or exciting. Stepping in for Pierre Morel, Olivier Megaton (The Transporter 3) brings a workmanlike, mostly coherent approach to the action scenes, and there’s a clever sequence in which Neeson helps Grace find him through a crude form of echolocation involving a map, a felt-tip pen, and some hand grenades. The only real innovation is in making Neeson’s adventure a family affair, but that mostly involves making him bark driving instructions at Grace as they tear through Istanbul’s obstacle-strewn, chase-friendly streets. Otherwise, it’s business as usual for the Besson machine, distinguished only by the star working the levers. Neeson’s Jason Statham-ization continues apace, but it’s looking less and less like a welcome development.