What's Normal Now
Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Rade Šerbedžij
(20th Century Fox)
US theatrical: 4 Oct 2012 (General release)
“I just want to feel normal,” says Kim (Maggie Grace), “Even if it’s just pretending.” Good luck with that. This is the same Kim who was kidnapped by Albanian white slavers back in Taken and who witnessed her father, ex-CIA operative Bryan (Liam Neeson) massacre most of those monsters. Now she’s home and learning to drive, with her hyper-precise dad as her teacher. She loves him and owes him, of course, but still, she admits when he wonders how she could have already failed the drivers’ test twice, “Maybe I don’t really want a license.”
Taken 2 doesn’t dig into this potential psychological vein, but leaves it hanging: maybe Kim wants to remain dependent on her mom, Escalade-driving Lenore (Famke Janssen) or maybe she’s hoping to be driven y her new boyfriend Jamie (Luke Grimes). Or maybe she does want to spend more time with Bryan, in spite of her protests. He’s not normal in any way, everyone knows that. But his excesses can seem perversely charming, signs of his dedication and brilliance, if not necessarily his emotional range. Certainly, Olivier Megatron’s sequel suggests as much, making little jokes of Bryan’s intensive parenting exertions and obsessiveness, the digital clock he watches shot in monumental close-up or the oh-so-slight twitch that reveals for the briefest of split-seconds his vulnerability, his consternation, his futile efforts to understand a teenaged girl’s experience.
Given their film’s title, it won’t come as a surprise that Bryan and Kim end up in another kidnapping situation. This one is set in Istanbul, where Kim and Lennie come to join Bryan, partly to soothe mom’s upset at her crumbling current marriage (the bad new husband remains off screen, except as a dark, speeding car, but her tears over his unkindness provide all the plot you need on that front). It’s only a matter of minutes before Taken 2 gets down to business: the taking this time is engineered by the grieving father of the taker from the previous time, Murad (Rade Šerbedžij). He sets all kinds of bearded, black-lather-jacketed minions on the case, determining he’ll kill all three in order to exact vengeance for his loss.
His desire for revenge is at once a cursory plot point and a cursory theme, as Murad and Bryan have occasion to discuss the reasons for and likely outcomes of such desire. They both measure the world in meticulous ways, but they both deal in gigantic schemes, mayhem and blood and explosives. When Bryan escapes his first captivity but Lennie is dragged off by the bad guys, he assures Kim that he’ll get her mom back, by doing “what I do best,” namely, killing everyone. And so he proceeds, through alleys and into basements and basements, passing under many calls to prayer (the villains’ Muslim identities here are incidental, of course), in order to get to the point, that is, the slamming, knifing, breaking bones, and shooting—always lots of shooting.
There’s something to be said for a guy who can manage all this. Bryan is nothing if not an ideal dad during the incessant war on terror. Even when the camera obfuscates where he is or what he’s doing—as Taken 2 is inclined to break up spaces and shadows to make hallways and streets utterly illegible—you know he’s headed exactly where ne needs to be, where he can find (again and again) the repeatedly unconscious Lennie or slaughter the cretin who’s been sliding a blade up and down her sweater.
At the same time, though, Bryan is the miserable product of that same war, always on guard, never trusting, schizzy and nervous-making. And even if he’s terminally sure of what he does best, as Kim and Lennie listen to him delivering instructions, they look at him like he’s crazy. This is what’s normal now. When he gives Lennie a list of 12 turns to make as he sends her out of their suddenly unsafe car or tells Kim over the phone to take from his case a “gun and two grenades.” He knows what’s coming next, Kim can’t: still, she nods and does as she’s told. You might enjoy the absurdity.
To its credit Taken 2 gets that part, it acknowledges the absurdity and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is, a sequel cashing in on a surprise hit. But much like the slasher films that provide a model here, where the final girls return to be assailed by the same monsters, the film is repetitive by definition. Like the girls, Bryan seems plucky and smart, sometimes lucky, and primed to pursue ultraviolent justice (the euphemism here for vengeance), even if he tells Murad he’d like it to end here and now, if only they can both just walk away. Neither can do that, you know it and they know it. And so they do what they do best. Again.