Let me start off by saying that this isn't a movie review but rather a discussion about the film Taken 2.
Liam Neeson, with a single speech, instantly made himself into the top badass in Hollywood and with good reason. The first Taken movie was something we don’t often see from the action genre, it didn’t play it safe. While it fell back on several tried, tested and true tropes of the action genre it made the best use of them possible and this is where Taken 2 failed to live up to expectations. The funny thing is, the two films aren’t too dissimilar from one another on paper, so what went wrong?
Plot: Taken kept to the simple plot but made that into something special. We have an ex-government agent who is somewhat estranged from his family. His daughter is kidnapped while on the phone with him and he needs to get her back. That’s it. There is no romance plot, no attempt to win back the affections of his wife, no greater message about crime and punishment or the worth of friendship, just a very dangerous man trying to get his daughter back at whatever cost. Because the plot and story eschew anything else you have a film that is wall to wall action, but simple action. Again, without anything else diverting from the central story you have no other motivations for the main character and you make him far more interesting as a result. He doesn’t go into a whore house, kill all the bad guys, and get the girls help. He kills only the people in his way and we see a couple of occasions where he just leaves their victims to their fate. He doesn’t care, he’s not an avenging knight in silver plate mail, the world is a dark and dirty place and he knows that nothing he does will have a large impact on that. He just wants his daughter back.
Taken 2, unfortunately, muddles up what should have been a simple story by following other characters and having more people around our protagonist. We need to pay attention to his wife, his daughter and him looking after, trying to protect and trying to save the both of them. What was a very straight forward story that revealed character traits through the actions and interactions of a single character turns into a run of the mill beat-em-up with points of view and characters that have been shown to be unnecessary.
Character: I touched on this above. Liam Neeson’s character in the first Taken film is not what you expect from an action hero. Previous films of this type give off the impression of the hero as a battering ram. He comes across a den of baddies and doesn’t stop punching and shooting until they are all dead. By the end he has somehow managed to save whatever he was going to save since it is apparently the only thing in the city that is explosion proof. By comparison, Liam is more akin to a hunter. He finds what he needs, kills only the people that get in his way and just moves on. On occasion you see him actively running away from fights he has no further stake in since he already got the information he needed.
Here’s a big one: he finds out where multi billionaires are meeting to buy human beings on an auction block and rather than telling a police force about this or taking down an entire criminal organization, he forces one man to buy his daughter so that he can free her and they can escape. This was a type of hero we had never seen before in the mass media and it was fantastic because of that. You were surprised and a little taken aback by how callous he is to the plight of other people, he’s just focused on one thing and his history has shown him that this is just the way the world is. This is evidenced by the phone call with his daughter that highlighted the trailers and the film itself. You’d expect an action hero to tell his daughter to stay strong and that daddy would be there to save them. Instead he is realistic with her, you are going to be kidnapped, there is no way around that; this is what I need you to do. He doesn’t even promise that he’ll save her and what goes unsaid between them is essentially ‘If I can’t get you back, I’m at least going to make corpses of these men, so show me how to find them.’. It’s a magnificently well done scene even if the speech he gives afterwards is a bit hammed up.
We see bits of this again in Taken 2 but it’s too conscious of this style and the character is no longer new to us. Because we expect him to be like this, nothing he does or doesn’t do surprises us in the way that it did in the first film and we lose interest in the character since without that level of discovery, he’s a rather one dimensional character.
Action: The first Taken film was a joy ride in terms of its action. While portions of it were over the top you could assume that a normal person, with a lifetime of training, could do the things we see Liam pull off. It never got to the James Bond level of chase-across-a-city ridiculous and there are none of the grand explosions while the hero turns away moments. Instead it’s a fast paced fight for survival that while exhilarating is still believable. The film also doesn’t seem to overburden itself with drawn out action pieces. We have a lot of short ones instead and the breaks between them allow for more of the great character work to be done, like the light switch chair.
In contrast to this Taken 2 tries to pump in more action when it’s not needed. It’s like the producers looked at the first film and just shouted ‘MOAR!’ with no thought to how to balance the various aspects of the film and that is the critical part to the success of Taken above its sequel. Taken 2 basically just tried to be the first film again with the bar for spectacle raised a bit higher and that simply isn’t good enough for movie goers anymore.
What made Taken so wonderful was a mix between its simple originality and the balance between shown character moments and fast paced but realistic action. Taken 2 failed because it didn’t pay attention to these points. The plot has more going on, we’ve already seen these characters within this franchise and so there’s little shock value left in them, there is an overabundance of padded out action sequences and the action itself doesn’t have the feeling of groundedness the first film had. This leaves it an imbalanced mess as it tries to show points of view for characters while it limits its own ability to do so by adding more action along with the characters.
Simply put: watching Firefly at max volume does not make it a better show and that’s all Taken 2 was, the first film a little louder.