Chuck Koplinski: Neeson caters to his audience in 'Taken 2'

Having stumbled upon a new career path with "Taken," Liam Neeson has become the action star of the moment, parlaying the success of that film — which grossed a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide — into a series of uneven action movies ("The Grey" good; "Taken" not so much) that have elevated his international box office appeal.

It was only inevitable that Neeson would return to the scene of his good fortune with the imaginatively titled "Taken 2," a popcorn movie that's short on logic but long on thrills.

Once more, the actor is former CIA agent Bryan Mills, who's intent on turning over a new leaf both professionally and personally. Set to take a business trip to Istanbul, he invites his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) to join him there for a mini-vacation.

Bad move. Fate — and some convenient screenwriting from Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen — have Mills crossing paths with Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija), the father of one of his victims from the first film. With revenge on his mind, Mills and Lenore are soon — you guessed it — taken, and before you know it, mayhem ensues.

Much like its hero, the film is calculating and efficient as it gives the audience exactly what it wants with very few frills. Much of the action — and there's surprisingly little of it — is done in a competent manner.

Director Olivier Megaton does himself a disservice by employing a rapid editing scheme that ends up muddying the action rather than clarifying it. Still, the highlight is a chase sequence that finds Kim, who's failed her driving test twice, behind the wheel as Bryan sets out to dispatch the bad guys who are on their tail. Though not played for as many laughs as it might have been, these scenes are slickly done and make you sit up and take notice, especially at the chase's end.

To be sure, the main draw is Neeson. He fills the screen like very few actors of his generation can and the fact that he can convincingly play both a man of action as well as an overly protective father helps this thin material go further than it should.

He plays it all with such conviction amidst such ridiculous mayhem that he's skirting the line of self-parody in the second entry in the series.

Upon saying, "Listen to me carefully" — which is quickly becoming the franchise's catch phrase — for the second time during the film, it was met with appreciative laughter. Of course, this is to be expected as, despite the vicious brand of violence on display here, no one is taking these films seriously, including Neeson himself.

He's here for a paycheck, and audiences come for the thrills. Here's betting that all parties will go home happy after "Taken 2" and will be eager for more — though I'm not sure Mills has any more family members who can be abducted.

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"Pitch" an off-key effort. () Jason Moore's "Pitch Perfect" is a film that tries very hard to be liked, so much so that it winds up grating on the audience rather than charming it.

Set in the world of collegiate a cappella competitions (yes, there is such a thing), correlations to "Glee" are inescapable as many of the film's characters are social outcasts who grasp the opportunity to express themselves and bolster their confidence through the film's various musical showdowns.

As with most movies made from recycled elements, the success of this venture lies on the shoulders of its cast members, as they're required to bring something special to this brand of leftovers.

Fortunately, Moore has Anna Kendrick at his disposal and she very nearly saves the show with her pluck and sincerity. The "Twilight" veteran stars as Beca, a reluctant college student who's attending Barden University at the insistence of her father. What she really wants to do is go to California in order to pursue a job as a record producer, a career she very well may succeed at as evidenced by the music mixes she's always compiling.

Ready to just bide her time for four years, she's coerced into auditioning for the Barden Bellas, one of four a cappella groups on campus. This one is lorded over by Aubrey (Anna Camp), an A+ personality intent on taking the group to the national championship in order to make up for their disastrous appearance from the year before.

Thank goodness levelheaded Chloe (Brittany Snow) is on hand to mediate between the group's obsessive leader and the rebellious Beca.

All of the requisite elements are present in Kay Cannon's screenplay as Beca is given a love interest in the person of Jesse (Skylar Astin), who belongs to a rival singing group, while comic relief, at least according to some, is provided by Fat Amy, played by Australian comedienne Rebel Wilson, whose act has already worn thin after getting her first significant role in last year's "Bridesmaids."

Predictable singing competitions also abound — as do gross-out jokes and one-dimensional supporting characters. Yep, it's the same old tune.

The film remains watchable thanks to the lovely and talented Kendrick. Vacillating from fare that's beneath her talent ("Twilight" and its sequels) and projects that let her mine her potential ("Up in the Air"), the actress ends up being far better than most of the material she finds herself in. That's certainly the case here, as you can tell she's operating on a different level than her co-stars, opting for subtlety and stillness while those who share the screen with her are often obvious in their choices and far too broad in their characterizations.

Kendrick doesn't have to strain to hit any high notes. She has the confidence and skill to deliver a solid performance without having to strain or show off.

Simplistic "Won't Back Down" doesn't do its subject justice. (1/2) In case you haven't heard, unionized teachers are lazy, uninspired, selfish and, at times, cruel.

This is a notion that was put forth in last year's manipulative documentary "Waiting for Superman," was suggested by those who opposed the recent teacher's strike in Chicago and is beaten like a dead horse in the simplistically one-sided film "Won't Back Down."

While the movie does have some important points to make, as directed by Daniel Barnz, who served as a co-writer with Brin Hill, matters are presented in such stark black-and-white terms, I had to wonder why he decided to shoot the film in color at all.

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie, a single, working-class mom who's struggling to make ends meet and is worried about her dyslexic daughter getting the help she needs. The film opens with a scene in which the poor girl is humiliated in front of her entire class because of her inability to read, only to be shamed again when she's denied the chance to go to the bathroom and has an accident.

This sets the method for the movie's madness as Barnz and Hill are never satisfied with making a simple point when they can beat it into oblivion with a narrative sledgehammer.

Infuriated, Jamie vows to change things. She enlists the help of Nona (Viola Davis), a disgruntled teacher who's become discouraged by the system and is trying to handle some personal issues of her own. Together, these two set out to use what is known as the "fail-safe law" which enables them to oust the current school administration and start from scratch.

Of course, this is met with much opposition, particularly from, you guessed it, the teacher's union that is intent on protecting all of those evil deadbeat educators.

This is the sort of film that used to be made in the 1930s when America's can-do spirit was in full bloom and audiences were much more apt to accept the sort of simple solutions this movie contains.

The turn-around that takes place in the school in question, all of which was based on a true story that took place in Pittsburgh, occurs in record time with a minimum of red tape.

Equally silly is the fact that in making this change, the school is suddenly transformed into a fertile, nurturing institution devoted to learning. To be sure, the country's current educational system has problems and there are bad teachers in it.

But dealing with these issues is far more complex than the simple and insulting solutions this simple-minded film puts forth.

 

'Taken 2'

 2 1/2 stars out of 4

Cast: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Rade Serbedzija, D.B. Sweeney, Jon Gries, Luke Grimes, Leland Orser, Alain Figlarz and Ali Yildirim.

Directed by Olivier Megaton; produced by Luc Besson; screenplay by Robert Mark Kamen and Besson.

A 20th Century Fox release. 91 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense violence and action, some sensuality). At the AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow him on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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