Taken 2 repeats the highest action traditions

Political filmmaker Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing, The Confession) once said “If Americans are so free, why do you love escapist entertainment? What are you escaping from?” That question comes to mind every time a Luc Besson action movie opens here to negative reviews. Whether the terrific Transporter series, Angela-A, Colombiana, From Paris with Love or Taken and the new Taken 2, the films get short shrift as escapist entertainment. The more dull-witted reviewers then complain that these productions lack compelling action; their art and politics disconnect is tragic.

Worst of all. They disregard Besson’s political savvy–his sensitivity to the social tensions that have beset the West (especially post-Colonial Europe)–in preference for the escapist potential of his movies. The Taken series, the story of an American father determined to save his family from nefarious abductors, derive their impact from an urgent political problematic: the West’s post-9/11 vulnerability to terrorist threat.

In the first film agent Mills (big Liam Neesom with his gruff but calm voice) rescued his daughter from Parisian thugs; this time both daughter (Maggie Grace) and estranged wife (Famka Janssen) are prey to Albanian hoodlums who retaliate against Mills. Yet, Besson doesn’t produce mindless escapism. He follows the Costa-Gavras tradition of melding political urgency to suspenseful plotting and pell-mell scene construction–though less sanctimoniously than Costa-Gavras. Besson is less ostentatiously “engaged;” his audience is those urban viewers most dependent upon escapism but also more responsive to the pressures of social and economic violence than to self-serving political rhetoric.

Besson knows how to turn rhetoric into action and assigned Taken 2 to the adept Olivier Megaton, a French hiphop-influenced visual artist who displays lively action montage that transforms sociopolitical crisis into eye-blinking wit. Taken 2’s fight scenes and car chases are lean feats, edited for edge–the excitement of violence that you barely glimpse. Different from the blur of the Bourne series, Megaton specializes in the “after-image” of violence. He mostly avoids gore and thrills your intellectual sense of movement and consequence, action/reaction.

Megaton’s dazzling style (at its best in Transporter 3 and Colombiana) goes back to D.W. Griffith’s use of cross-cutting–basic stuff but Mills’ fight with hooligans while his wife is tortured and his daughter is chased along the rooftops of Istanbul really works. His technique provides a visceral and ethical exercise. When Mills confronts his nemesis (Rade Serbedzija), the call for “Justice!” gets corrected: “You mean revenge!” This essence is like what Costa Gavras’ most complex film explored (1970’s The Confession about Communist show trials). Beyond the political and religious surface of seeing Americans under siege, Taken 2 exposes the politics of vengeance, the rationalizing of immorality. This was also the good theme of Neveldine-Taylor’s brilliant Ghost Rider 2: The Spirit of Vengeance (also underrated).

Besson and Megaton bring the family-under-siege plot close to home in ways Griffith might appreciate. The wife’s hooded, upside-down interrogation is not just an Abu Grahib riposte, it echoes the mother’s horrific torture in Arthur Penn’s family espionage drama Target. Mills’ attempt to end the cycle of violence gives action audiences a useful lesson in moral negotiation. It isn’t jingoistic but it is tough and relevant to this moment of foreign policy appeasement, Taken 2’s significance is inescapable.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair