If you liked the first Taken, it was probably because of Liam Neeson. With that unlikely hit, the Oscar-nominated actor established himself as a tough-guy action star, a development that was surprising not because he's a bad fit for the role but, rather, because he proved really adept at it. Anyone can swing a lightsaber in a terrible Star Wars prequel, but in Taken, Neeson was a ruthless, bare-knuckle killer with a soulful, haunted look in his eyes. God bless him, he was really trying.
With Taken 2, he's still trying, and it's his dedication to the part that almost keeps this leaky, dopey boat afloat. Such is his complete authority as a badass that when he has to bark instructions at other characters so that they can stay alive—you'd be amazed how often this happens in Taken 2—he doesn't come across as the world's worst nag. Taken 2 is really, really goofy—it's even goofier because it thinks it's about the futility of vengeance—but Neeson almost makes you buy it. You wouldn't confuse what Neeson does in Taken 2 with his fine work in everything from Schindler's List to Kinsey, but it takes a special kind of actor to emerge unscathed from this pile of thrown-together ideas.
In the new film, Neeson again plays Bryan Mills, the ass-kicking security expert who is still overprotective of his teen daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), although his once-frosty relationship with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) seems to have thawed a little. Bryan has to do a job in Istanbul for a few days, and on the spur of the moment Kim and Lenore decide to meet up with him to spend some quality time together. Which would be awesome, except for the fact that Murad (Rade Sherbedgia), the father of one of the men Bryan killed in the first Taken, has mobilized a group of thugs to capture Bryan and his family to get revenge.
Taken 2 is directed by Olivier Megaton. My favorite thing about him is that he calls himself Olivier Megaton. As the press notes for his new movie explain, Megaton (who was born Olivier Fontana) "takes his [professional] name from his birthday, August 6, 1965, which marked the twentieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, and gave the French helmer an oddly prophetic nom de plume." As with the films he directs (Colombiana, Transporter 3), you have to sit back and marvel at that statement's sheer ludicrousness. Did he adopt "Megaton" as a way of memorializing the murder of so many innocent souls? Or did he just think the name sounded awesome? You never know, and likewise Taken 2 hops from utter seriousness to total excessiveness without much indication that it knows the difference between the two. The movie's never boring, at least.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter who directs Taken 2: If this film has an auteur, it's Luc Besson, the movie's co-writer and producer, who of late has overseen a group of glossy, junky thrillers—the Taken films, the Transporter films, Colombiana, From Paris With Love, Lockout—full of pulpy, silly, tongue-in-cheek violence. I can enjoy Besson's films up to a point—his frequent collaborator, Jason Statham, brings deadpan cool that definitely helps—but after a while his movies' glib disposability feels like a lazy shortcut to get out of trying to make a good movie. Like a lot of his films, Taken 2 is dopey and slick and (intentionally?) unintentionally hilarious, but it's very rarely any good.
Whether Neeson is aware of any of this is open to debate. Everything in Taken 2 is delivered with such strident seriousness that it makes the goofy parts even funnier. (Tellingly, when the movie actually tries to be comedic—Uh oh, Bryan doesn't like his daughter's boyfriend!—it's not funny at all.) As good as Neeson is as an avenging angel, he doesn't have Statham's gift for light, ironic self-mockery: Neeson elevates the proceedings with his professionalism, but the rest of the film won't meet him up there. Instead, the movie is filled with a weird tension between wanting to be more than B-movie trash and really, really wanting to be B-movie trash. You're tempted to laugh knowingly during a crucial scene when Bryan's big plan is to have Kim hurl live grenades in the middle of Istanbul so that he can track her whereabouts. Or when an early scene about Kim flunking her driving test becomes incredibly important later when she has to drive her dad during a high-speed chase. Even this sequel's setup could be amusing—they're riffing on the formula of Taken 1 in a "How can the same shit happen to the same guy?" sort of way—but there's no sense of irony or wit amidst the dull carnage. Taken 2 is what Die Hard 2 would have been if John McClane couldn't take a joke.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.