I’ll admit that when I was much younger I watched the Australian episode of the Simpsons and was offended at the portrayal. I don’t feel that way anymore of course, and upon reflection and reviewing as an adult it’s hard to find something offensive in a portrayal that absurd. But it made me think about what people outside my country thought of my country, and how outsiders would choose to present it. Thoughts like this bring to mind the film Man on Fire (2004), which portrayed Mexico City as a violent, kidnap-filled wasteland, but put a dedication before the credits proclaiming how nice the city was.
So it was interesting to see Taken 2 with my mate Cemil, who was a regular visitor to the city of Istanbul, in which most of Taken 2 is set. I was wondering how badly Istanbul would be portrayed and how violent and lawless it would be. The plot concerns Bryan (Liam Neeson) and his ex-wife (Famke Janssen, who still looks great) getting kidnapped while on holiday in Istanbul and relying on Kim (Maggie Grace) to rescue them. So, is Istanbul portrayed as a violent cesspit of sleaze?
Taken 2’s portrayal turned out alright, from what I’ve learned from Cemil. Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the landscape shots are nice. The cop cars, however, are anachronistic, and there isn’t as many Mercedes benz cars in Istanbul as the film suggests. There’s also one scene which visually suggests that Albania and Turkey share a border. But it is nice to have someone who can tell you what part of Istanbul they’re in according to what grand mosque is shown in an establishing shot.
But it’s only in those sweeping establishing shots that the movie looks good. The rest of the cinematography is shaky and indirect, and a visual sense of geography is difficult to obtain. Halls all look the same, each street and bazaar looks like the last. One scene which has Maggie Grace climbing outside her luxury hotel room only offers us a few fleeting shots of the beautiful view.
The actions scenes fare worse. One Neeson-vs.-three guys fight is so choppy and shaky it ends up as a jumpy collection of shoulders and elbows, with little to no sense of choreography and no indication as to which thug he’s killing and how. I suspect it has something to do with the toned down violence of the film, and perhaps it looks this bad because frames of violence were removed.
That marks the second problem I have with the film. The first film became a cult classic (despite its very obvious flaws in the first act) because of the speed and brutality of the violence and the extremes to which a lanky 60yrold Irishman will go to get his daughter back. This film didn’t share that brutality, which is a shame because, as the rule is with sequels, the things that people loved about the first film are recreated and exaggerated. It was great how Neeson dispatched enemies, and as action movie fan it was great to see a character that ruthless. One scene (referenced in this movie) had him brutally torture a baddie with electrocution, cutting off the typical “you won’t win” lines of dialogue by switching on the voltage. It’s that kind of genre defying that earned the first film so many fans and the sequel feels as if they’ve been neutered to appeal to a wider audience.
But enough about what I didn’t like, what about what worked? For the one thing the film doesn’t share the kind of misogyny that the first film did. Kim is portrayed as resourceful and brave, despite still being very much a civilian. The ex-wife isn’t portrayed as naive or as stupid as she is in the first one, as well. There still is a bit of that element where Neeson is still determined to keep his daughter a virgin, but the film gives it a bit of context by having her still be a recovering victim from the events of the first film, so a bit of that is forgivable.
The film is also smarter. There is a scene involving a shoelace and a hand grenade, and Neeson’s very clever way of establishing his position and making contact with Kim despite being blindfolded. There’s some great gunplay and martial arts on display, when visible (Neeson knows his way around a gun and is a very skilled fighter) and there is some very cool counter intelligence/counter kidnapping stuff here, which elevates the film more than I thought it would.
The villains are the anguished relatives of Albanian white slavers that Neeson fantastically murdered in the first film. There is some good work with Rade Serbedzija as the father of the electrocution victim. You kind of feel for him, and as an action thriller it was interesting to have someone feel sad about the death of a horrible henchman. There was some stuff that I wish they put some more depth into, regarding who Serbedzija is. Neeson informs him that his son was a slaver, who kidnapped girls and turned them into prostitutes, and Serbedzija replies that he doesn’t care (for a scene like this done better, see The Losers (2010)). I wish they teased more emotion out of that scene, as it would have added a lot of depth. Ultimately he wasn’t as interesting as suggested, and is as ruthless a villain as you’d expect in a movie like this. Despite this the film gets points for trying to make him a sympathetic character.
So the film was better than I thought in some respects, lacking in others. I think the DVD contain a lot more violence in it, and again like other films this year I’m annoyed, frustrated and weary that I paid to watch an incomplete cut of a movie in a cinema. The city turned out ok, but I think Cemil and I wished it looked better and we could see things a bit more clearly. The final word on it is that it’s better than most films but still not as good as the original.