"Taken 2" is so much lousier than need be, and its action sequences look as if they were put together by someone who doesn't know what he's doing. That's a problem. And not even the charismatically weather-beaten face and basso profundo action-star delivery of Liam Neeson can compensate.
Extending a work trip to vacation with his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) and daughter (Maggie Grace), Neeson's ex-CIA op, Bryan Mills, is kidnapped and held captive in a hellhole somewhere in Istanbul by murderous Albanians, out for revenge for all the Albanians slaughtered in the first "Taken" four years ago. The script of "Taken 2" inserts an occasional plea for peace, love and understanding in the mouth of Mills, but it doesn't believe them for a second. There is no "Taken 2" without Neeson shooting, stabbing, strangling, mixed-martial-arts-ing and generally destroying dozens of Albanians who want him dead, and want his ex-wife dead, and want his daughter as a sex slave for hire. Albanians really don't come off well as a people in this franchise.
One scene in particular works a kind of inadvertent magic, throwing the audience straight out of the picture. Mills, stuck in a basement in handcuffs, is on the phone with his daughter. Under extreme duress he relays a heinously complicated series of instructions involving map coordinates, and it goes on and on. And then he says: "Now, I want you to go to the balcony with the grenade. Is there a safe place you can throw the grenade?"
By this time, even before the fearless Albanian killer's daughter starts lobbing grenades willy-nilly all over Istanbul — this is why they hate us! — the audience at a recent "Taken 2" preview got the giggles. And that was that: the sound of a crowd losing faith.
While I didn't get much fun out of the first "Taken" (idiotically given a PG-13 rating, like the sequel), it did its job with some sadistic panache. This time the director is Olivier Megaton, lately of "Transporter 3," working in the house style of producer and co-writer Luc Besson (glamour, grime and no time wasted on quality). The way Megaton shoots and edits close-proximity physical action, it's worse than a blur; it's a headache inside a blur. Compare the rooftop chase sequence in Tangier from the third "Bourne" film with the Istanbul rooftop chase in "Taken 2." In "The Bourne Ultimatum," the action's lucid and scary, and the audience is asked to take the peril and the weight of the protagonist's bloody actions seriously. In "Taken 2" there's nothing except poorly staged leaps and tumbles, designed to set up the climactic "heroic" kill-shot.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, as some Albanian dramatist once said, but "Taken 2" isn't good-cold, as in steely and purposeful; it's cold as in "lost the scent." After the solid satisfactions of the recent Neeson vehicles "Unknown" (Neeson versus his own memory loss) and "The Grey" (Neeson versus wolves), this hacky smackdown between Neeson and a third-rate director can't compete.
'Taken 2' -- 1 star
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sensuality)
Running time: 1:34