There’s just not enough action-thriller camp — at least, not any that doesn’t already have the perspiration or mania of John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, or Sylvester Stallone. Generally, the genre’s too muscular for inadvertent ridiculousness to take hold. All you notice is the physical stuff: the physics of the plot, the physics of the fights, the physics of the physics. These movies can be brilliant, in that sense, or just smart enough. The “Bourne’’ series, for instance, charts somewhere in between. Meanwhile, “Taken 2’’ occupies a totally different quadrant on that graph. It’s a stupid movie by smart people who aren’t smart enough to realize it’s stupid. The absurdity grows like mold in the dank, dark of seriousness. So it’s fun for some of the right reasons, but mostly for the wrong ones.
This is the sort of sequel that seems to make perfect sense to the people who made it but none to us. The Albanian relatives of the men killed in the first movie by the former CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) are seeking revenge. There’s not a lot of parsing here of the moral particulars. Mills killed those men because they kidnapped his daughter and planned to turn her into a sex slave. He killed them because they succeeded in doing the same and worse to scores of other people’s daughters. He killed them because the movie’s tag line was “I will find you and I will kill you.’’
This is all to say that the new movie is an eye-for-an-eye special. The new baddies are led by Murad (Rade Serbedzija), the mob father of the dead ringleader. Just so we know what we’re up against, Murad says stuff like, “She will be abused by so many men that she will be nothing more than a piece of meat.’’ I took small pleasure in assuming that on the set there was someone whose job it was to make sure Serbedzija, who’s Croatian and a veteran of parts like this, looked like he styled his hair with spit.
Bryan is vacationing in Istanbul with his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), and his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen, looking good in a hard, “Real Housewives’’ sort of way), when Murad’s goons find and grab Bryan and Lenore off the streets. The goons can never quite catch Kim, who’s back at the hotel, and her mounting sense of self-defense is the partial source of the film’s comedy. Through the lazy magic of screenwriting — Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen typed up both movies (the director is a Besson-factory regular, Olivier Megaton) — Bryan, who’s tied up in a dungeon, gets his hands on a phone which leads to two legitimately magical calls to Kim. Here’s a partial transcript:
“Take a shoelace from one of my shoes in the closet. . . . Draw another circle with the market in the center. . . . I want you to go to the parking lot with the grenade. . . . I want you to pull the pin on the grenade. . . . Now I want you to draw a circle on the map. . . . I want you to take one of the guns and two of the grenades and go up to the roof. . . . Set off another grenade. . . . Drop the gun down the vent, Kim, and run. . .’’
We already know, at this point, that Kim still lives with Lenore, has a new, 19-year-old-ish boyfriend, and is preparing to get her driver’s license — even though she looks 30. Kim was the reason the first movie didn’t work. She was so obnoxious that you almost didn’t care what the Albanians did to her. Not this time. This time you watch her comply with her father’s wishes, stealing a hotel worker’s clothes, long-jumping across rooftops, biting the pin out of grenades, and maybe you think about outlandish action entertainment’s other Kim — Kim Bauer from Fox’s “24’’ (‘Taken 2’’ is also a Fox release). That Kim might be the most disaster-prone character in the history of television. It was season after season of waiting to discover what national-security-compromising foolishness she would get into next. In “Taken 2,’’ when Kim Mills has a moment of self-doubt while driving a stolen taxi cab alongside her father in a particularly egregious chase sequence, you think, “Don’t be that Kim, Kim. Plow that car through those other cars and those people and that fruit stand. Plow that car past the security checkpoint all the way to the steps outside the American embassy. Be that Kim.’’
Besson has made a fortune from craziness like this. This movie more or less zooms straight from his production plant in Paris and is another that turns the developing country’s real estate into the first world’s jungle gym. The first ‘Taken’’ seemed to connect to men, viscerally. It was a surprise hit in 2009: the divorced dad’s revenge fantasy done up as action-movie brutality. Eurobaddies are bad. But haughty ex-wives, their affluent new husbands, and ungrateful daughters are worse. Now Bryan and Lenore and Kim are almost a family again, so the chip is off his big, broad shoulders. He has nothing to prove anymore. Not to his family, himself, or us. The revenge has lost all its fantasy.