We’re a long way from square, schlubby Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) — the guy with tucked-in polos and secondhand karaoke-machine birthday gifts for Kim (Maggie Grace), a daughter whose rich stepdad, Stuart, counters with a pony.
There’s a crucial patience and a smart performance in the original “Taken,” in which we first met Neeson’s long-absentee father anxious to make up for lost time after a life in black ops. By letting us spend enough time with him in try-hard teddy-bear dad mode, we really felt him harden into a gnashed-teeth grizzly in order to save his daughter from Albanian human traffickers. “Taken” remains mercilessly effective, a classier “Commando” trimmed of fat but not true shocks or shrewd momentum.
By contrast, “Taken 2” offers no alarms and no surprises. There’s no desperation to Bryan’s hustle as he butts heads with the father of the Albanians he mowed down, tries to save his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), and perhaps win her back. Hell, there’s no hustle. Michael Myers moves faster than Bryan does in this sequel.
However, “Taken 2’s” worst choice was refashioning Bryan in the image of Brosnan instead of Bronson — a badass instead of a dad-ass. Bryan started dressing far too cool — tailored suits and slim-fit shirts. His ’do looked purposefully messy, not tousled like the guy from before whose only regard given to hair was that he had it.
This may seem inconsequential until you consider that the triumph of style over character has hemmed the ass-stomping aspects of Neeson’s post-“Taken” work into a range of middling (“Unknown”) to mildly entertaining (“Non-Stop”). Name either of those movies’ lead characters. The answer might as well be Liam Neeson. (A side note: Perhaps as reflected by their lower grosses, the melancholic double feature of “The Grey” and “A Walk Among the Tombstones” — the best ostensible lone-man action movies he’s done since “Taken” — decidedly does not fall in this set.)
Sadly, the numbers on Neeson’s personal grooming posse only seem to have doubled, according to the end credits of “Tak3n” (a film in which, regrettably, no one says the word “taken” let alone the phonetically appropriate “TAKTHREEN!”) There are people who designed Neeson’s makeup, hair and costumes, then handed their work off to a passel of specific stylists. What, no cowlick wrangler or sweat blotter?
The continued focus on form over function is too bad, because Neeson is trying here again. And although Bryan’s character traits in “Tak3n” are intermittently interesting, this alleged closing chapter is propulsive but rarely pulse-pounding.
As it happens, Bryan’s heroics didn’t win Lenore back; she’s still with Stuart (Dougray Scott, in a recast role), but unhappy. In fact, she fantasizes about Bryan. After a passionate kiss, he pulls away, choosing propriety over passion but extending a helping hand. “She is my friend,” he tells a friend wondering why he even bothers anymore, and Neeson lends sincerity to this unguarded moment. Less interesting: Kim’s secret pregnancy, but at least they’re not trying to pass off the 31-year-old Grace as a gangly teen anymore.
The domestic détente doesn’t last long. Bryan is framed for Lenore’s murder and forced to employ his special set of skills to escape the encroaching LAPD. He goes off the grid after a wild chase, but it leaves him looking haggard — huffing, puffing and slowly shuffling off in confusion and pain. (One appreciable aspect: For the most part, the cops aren’t bumbling idiots and stay on Bryan like ants on doughnuts.)
Amid his perfunctory face-breaking duties, Neeson lets this slower, more sluggish version of Bryan peer out in “Tak3n,” particularly during a liquor-store fistfight where he’s whaled on for a long while. The contusions say what he doesn’t need to: He’s getting too old for this shit. And if you consider this is likely the first time Bryan has ever grieved a death, his inability to process it or handle Kim’s overwhelming sadness (“I don’t know how many times I can say sorry”) makes somber sense.
Of course, as Dr. Richard Kimble did, Bryan vows to find the real killers. All signs point to Oleg Malankov (Sam Spruell), a Russian gangster who sports Lloyd Christmas’s pumpkin pie-headed freak haircut from “Dumb and Dumber” and who rolls with lackeys who may as well be named Eurotrash Fred Armisen and Statham II. No need for the low-rent flashback to Söze this guy up. We know Malankov is a scumbag the second he kills a dog. But if it’s not perfectly clear that someone else is pulling the strings, well, I hope the second movie you’ve ever seen in your life proves more challenging.
“Tak3n” also doubles down with a formidable mental foil for Bryan in Det. Franck Dotzler, played by Forest Whitaker. Dotzler is introduced next to a window, and you fear for the drapes given Whitaker’s insatiable appetite for scenery. Whitaker keeps his gesticulating in check, but the movie otherwise strains to make Dotzler the Quirky Lawman® — a knight chess piece he totes as a totem, the rubber band from Mills’ record he twists around his fingers, his penchant for carb-loading, that silent “C” in his first name. Dotzler also sports distractingly ill-advised facial hair, a grey-flecked chin Chia Pet that seems to mesmerize director Olivier Megaton’s camera.
Yes, there’s a gnarly wrong-way freeway chase out of the “Lethal Weapon” playbook. Yes, Bryan snaps one lackey’s neck with the stock of an automatic rifle while simultaneously unloading its clip into another. Yes, there’s a full undercard of hand-to-hand combat. Yes, the movie lazily ends on the exact same location shot as “Taken 2.” But there’s nothing enjoyably over-the-top as you’ve come to expect from producer / co-writer Luc Besson, and the movie wildly outstays its welcome by teetering toward two hours rather than the franchise’s usual tight 90 minutes.
“It ends here,” says the poster. Let’s hope so. We, and Neeson, have better things to do.