Silver Screen: Taken II **
Technically, shouldn't the sequel be called Took?
Grammatical quibbles aside, Taken II is both one of the year's most and least surprising sequels. Taken was a financial success for producer/action-movie-assemblyline-manager Luc Besson, which meant, of course, there would be a second one. On the other hand, the first (you have to hesitate before saying original) installment seemed destined to be a forgettable, fairly generic action flick-- but it drummed up a significant audience thanks in part to the casting of badass senior citizen Liam Neeson. In addition, Taken paid close attention to what makes action heroes tick in the new millennium: not just a swift facility for hand-to-hand combat but a familiarity with technology and steely efficiency-- the sleek new Bourne model is in, replacing all those clunky, gas-guzzling musclemen of the 1980s. Taken also appealed to Western audiences for potentially far less admirable reasons, and it's a trend that significantly carries over in the followup.
Taken II sets up its thin plot in the opening scene, which takes place just a few days after the rampage of the first film. The various shifty Muslim guys who the determined dad and secret agent Bryan Mills mowed down in the first one are being laid to rest before wailing women wrapped in head scarves. The father of one of the slain kidnappers vows vengeance on Mills for murdering their murderous children.
A few months later, back in America, where the soundtrack is never ominous and the sun always shines, Mills is putting a normal life back together. His relationship with daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) is better than ever, proving that the nicest thing a father can get his daughter is something homemade, like saving her from being drugged and raped at gunpoint by ethnic caricatures. He's even re-ingratiating himself to ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), so much so that he invites her along with Kim for a little vacation in Istanbul, as one does.
On one side of this river is Europe, and on the other side is Asia, Mills tells his daughter during a boat tour that establishes the Yikes! Muslims! theme, explaining to her that nearly every invading conqueror throughout human history had to bridge this divide.
And invade someone does, of course, this time former proud papa of a sex trafficker turned vengeful dad Murad Krasniqui (the eastern European actor Rade Serbedzija, who specializes in playing villains of various ethnic origins). Mills is too late to catch on-- he and Lenore are on a car trip when they're abducted. He manages to contact Kim back at the hotel with a secret cell phone and instructs her in precise detail how to help him escape. It's a neat inversion of the first movie, with the victim at least temporarily recast as the liberator, and Grace is up to the task. With the help of his increasingly mature and intrepid daughter, Mills must not only save his ex-wife but locate his tormentors and ensure they're all dead, never to bother him again.
It's a boilerplate action premise executed with a little extra panache, oddly bloodless but deftly paced and consistently exciting, much like the first one. Also like the first one, it's pervaded by a weird ickiness as a bit of emotional exploitation crossed with a barely repressed political agenda.
Taken's success, as I noted the first time around, was a bit off-putting considering Mills's ultimate goal in the movie was to save his blonde, apple-cheeked daughter's sweet, sweet virginity from a leering old man wearing the latest styles from Anti-American Apparel. The movie seemed pitched directly at the basest fears of middle-aged Western whites: Those bloodthirsty Muslims just want to steal all the white women.
The theme is actually far less subtle in Taken II, the climax of which is all but a direct injunction against the possibility of peace. Mills, tired after a long day of killing twenty or so people, implores Krasniqui to call a mutual ceasefire, a microcosmic parallel to an obvious real-world problem. Krasniqui feigns interest in peace to save his skin, but only so he can redouble his efforts, reminding Mills that as long as Krasniqui lives he and his people will never give up killing. The weird rape threats continue as well when Krasniqui vows that he will sell Kim to the lowest brothel in the world where she will be reduced to less than a piece of meat, as meanwhile another thug sexually menaces Lenore with a Freudian pair of scissors.
Shame on Besson, who's always been an insufferable hack and an inveterate creep (Leon, the film that helped launch his international career, was rife with latent pedophilic undertones) and seems to embody the rampant xenophobia of his home country of France. He's playing on the basest concerns and ugliest fears of parents as the setup to an uninspired shoot ‘em up, tucking it all into a slightly less pernicious if far more sentimental domestic fantasy: The family that's Taken together stays together.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.