Take Liam Neeson's family members once shame on you. Take Liam Neeson's family members twice shame on him (but you'll still end up in a world of hurt).
Taken 2 sequel to the 2008 sleeper hit doesn't worry too much about improbability in devising a way to bring Bryan Mills (Neeson) back into the action. In the first film Mills punched and shot his way through Paris in order to retrieve his kidnapped daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). The followup jumps ahead two years Kim still on edge from the experience and Mills just hoping to move past it all. To wash away bad memories Kim and Mill's ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) join the badass-for-hire on a work trip to Istanbul where everyone can finally relax. That is until someone gets… taken.
In Taken 2 director Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3 Colombiana) sticks to the formula that helped transform Neeson into an aged action star laying out obvious hurdles for his MacGuyver-esque hero and letting fast-paced editing and Mills' fists do the heavy lifting. There's an added layer of character that feels like a tease: Mills and Kim are trying to act like a normal father/daughter — handed the horrific experience of learning to drive as their through-line conflict — and Megaton finds humorous ways to touch upon the struggle. In one sequence Kim drives a stolen taxi cab away from gun-toting pursuers as Mills dictates directions from the passenger side. The action movie equivalent of "10 and 2!" is shouted and all hell breaks loose in the moment of familial genius. But that's about it for Taken 2's innovation. More of the same is the goal here and the film delivers.
The only issue with straight up repeating Mills antics' from the first movie is that his new adversaries — relatives of the people he previously offed — are old and boring and easily defeated. Seeing schlubby Neeson slice dice and electrocute the private parts of men half his age was exciting. Seeing him do the same to senior citizens isn't. But Neeson is such a powerful onscreen force even Taken 2's slowest moments have a bit of a spark. He makes the nonsensical into pure Shakespeare; in hokey scenes where Mills pals around with his best buds Neeson drops lines that are laughable ("Oh can't we just talk about basketball!) — yet he owns them. We're chuckling with his awareness that Taken 2 is beyond silly.
Cooked up in the head of Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) comes the movie in which he makes his directorial debut. Without Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze sifting through the maze this time Kaufman himself weaves this crazy quilt with consummate skill. In other words Synecdoche New York is just as successfully quirky humane and head scratching as all the others in the Kaufman ouerve. To sum up the plot succinctly is impossible but it centers on a stage director and hypochondriac Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who trades in his suburban life with wife Adele (Catherine Keener) daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and regional theatrical work in Schenectady for a chance at Broadway. He puts together a cast (resembling those in his own dream world) and brings them to a Manhattan warehouse being designed as a replica of the city outside. As the world he is creating inside these walls expands so does the focus of his own life and relationships. As the years literally fly by he gets deeper into his theatrical self which soon starts to merge with his own increasingly pathetic reality. Whatever you make of the tale Kaufman is telling here the casting could not be better or more suited to the quirky material. Philip Seymour Hoffman offers up a tour-de-force and is simply superb playing all the tics and foibles of the deeply disturbed Caden. His early scenes in his “normal” home are wonderfully alive with all his phobias and hypochondria in view. Later we literally watch this man disintegrate as his master creation overwhelms him. Hoffman seems to fully understand the mental trauma of a man running as far from his own realities as he possibly can. Catherine Keener as always is right on target as his wife Adele. She has a knack for taking what seems like tiny moments and making them define exactly who this woman is. Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mentor to Caden’s daughter is always fascinating to watch and plays Maria with an ounce of irony. Tom Noonan playing the actor portraying Caden in the play is the perfect doppelganger and delightfully adds to Caden’s confused state. The all-pro trio of Michelle Williams as Caden’s new wife Claire; Samantha Morton as the irresistible assistant Hazel; and Hope Davis as Caden’s self-absorbed therapist add greatly to the merry mix. It’s nice to watch Charlie Kaufman seize control of his own work. In this instance he’s really the only one who can deliver us his Fellini-esque vision. Centering it all on the theatrical director’s weird universe Synecdoche does seem like it might be Kaufman’s own take on Fellini’s 8 ½ or even Woody Allen’s paean to that film Stardust Memories. Let’s just say we know most of it must exist somewhere inside Kaufman. Early domestic scenes could have been played flat but the novice director moves the camera around skillfully enough to make us immediately engaged in Caden’s world. Second half of the film set in the phantasmagoric warehouse is a stunning tapestry of scenes from Kaufman’s singularly fertile imagination. It’s nice to note he’s well equipped with the basic tools a director needs for this type of challenging material. Overall his film is a surprising confounding visual feast -- a dream/nightmare come to life and then spinning out of control.