Taxi 2

In just about every department, "Taxi 2" is a big improvement over its mindless, contrived but B.O. smasheroo predecessor. While there’s built-in anticipation about seeing the main characters of the car-stunt pic back onscreen, the French youngsters who embraced the first movie are two years older now and may have grown more finicky.

With:
Daniel - Samy Naceri
Emilien - Frederic Diefenthal
Petra - Emma Sjoberg
Chief Inspector Gibert - Bernard Farcy
Lilly - Marion Cotillard
(French and Japanese dialogue)

In just about every department, “Taxi 2” is a big improvement over its mindless, contrived but B.O. smasheroo predecessor. While there’s built-in anticipation about seeing the main characters of the car-stunt pic back onscreen, the French youngsters who embraced the first movie are two years older now and may have grown more finicky. But “Taxi 2” — again written and co-produced by Luc Besson — has the distinct advantage of being better scripted and lensed. Sure to be as critic-proof as “Star Wars,” this “Taxi” looks likely to rack up handsome fares on domestic routes.

Original installment, with 6.5 million admissions, was the third-biggest French grosser of 1998, as well as the most solid Gallic export of the year. But everything else about it was merely adequate: It looked substandard, the acting was clumsy, the vehicle stunts were tame. But Besson has proved over and over again his knack for guessing what paying auds want to see. Thrilled to discover a homegrown pic that wasn’t better suited to highbrow fests or history courses, kids (and not a few adults) ate it up.

Sequel is going out wide in the largest number of prints ever for a film in France — 836, beating the “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Meance” record of 797. Prior to its Paris opening March 29, pic had a nine-screen sneak in Marseille on March 25 that drew a boffo 17,800 admissions.

As well as re-teaming familiar characters from the first installment — in which a cop without a driver’s license joined forces with a renegade cabby to bust a car-theft ring — sequel maintains a snappy pace and adds martial arts action to vidgame-style stunt driving.

Comic intro has hotshot Marseille cabby Daniel (Samy Naceri) rushing a pregnant woman to the hospital in his ultra-souped-up taxi. En route, he passes the lead car in an auto race through the city’s winding hilltop roads, crossing the finish line first. Tardy for a lunch in which he’s finally to be introduced to the parents of his g.f., Lilly (Marion Cotillard), Daniel calls her on his cell phone. But she mistakes the woman’s labor-related shrieks in the cab’s back seat for screams of pleasure. It becomes a running gag that Daniel’s honest explanations of why he’s not yet home always sound like insultingly over-the-top fibs.

Meanwhile, mild-mannered cop Emilien (Frederic Diefenthal) finally receives his driver’s license after 27 unsuccessful attempts. He’s still as wretched a driver as ever, but the license is a parting gift from his long-suffering instructor, who has asked for a transfer from Marseille to Paris.

Emilien is still taken with statuesque blonde cop Petra (Emma Sjoberg), the visiting recruit in “Taxi” who is now a permanent member of the French force. Emilien finally declares his love for her — while she’s seated in a toilet stall from which Japanese ninjas kidnap her, to join their other hostage, the Japanese minister of defense.

En route to a Franco-Japanese summit in Paris, the Nipponese minister had stopped over in Marseille to check out the city’s gang-busting program. As the police chief puts it to his staff, “They’re having problems with their local Mafia — the jacuzzi, uh, yakuza.”

Joining forces once again in the title vehicle, Emilien and Daniel follow the bad guys to Paris. There — with a helping hand from Lilly’s dad, who happens to be a high-ranking military officer — they effect a suspenseful rescue incorporating a pleasing dose of stunt driving, multiple car pile-ups and nifty karate moves.

Helmer Gerard Krawczyk keeps the widescreen proceedings lively and gets smoother perfs than director Gerard Pires did in the original. Naceri is appealing as the assured, can-do cabby who bends the rules with flair, and Diefenthal maintains his lovable nebbish demeanor in the face of the reserved Sjoberg, who towers over him.

With accusations of plagiarism haunting Besson in the run-up to his Cannes jury presidency, here’s one more instance of homage-cum-pilferage: Daniel’s taxi sprouts wings and flies much like a certain Ian Fleming creation, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But it’s the film renditions of Fleming’s more famous creation, James Bond, to which “Taxi 2” aspires. Stunts like a parachute drop of Daniel’s cab from a cargo plane over Paris are far more impressive than anything in the first film.

The martial arts scenes won’t give Hong Kong filmmakers anything to worry about, but are pretty slick for a French pic. Use of a few songs as narrative shorthand is also good. At 85 minutes, and with an abrupt but apt gag finish, movie doesn’t overstay its welcome and leaves the path clear for a third installment.

Taxi 2

France

Production: An ARP release of a Luc Besson presentation of a Leeloo Prods./ARP/TF1 Films Prod./Le Studio Canal Plus production, with participation of Canal Plus. Produced by Luc Besson, Michele Petin, Laurent Petin. Executive producers, Bernard Grenet, Antoine Simkine. Directed by Gerard Krawczyk. Screenplay, Luc Besson.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Gerard Sterin; editor, Thierry Hoss; music, Al Khemya; art director, Jean-Jacques Gernolle; sound (Dolby), Pierre Excoffier, Jerome Levy, Herve Buirette, Francois Groult; digital effects, Duboi; stunt driving coordinator, Remy Julienne; casting, Swan Pham. Reviewed at UGC Odeon, Paris, March 28, 2000. Running time: 85 MIN.

With: Daniel - Samy Naceri
Emilien - Frederic Diefenthal
Petra - Emma Sjoberg
Chief Inspector Gibert - Bernard Farcy
Lilly - Marion Cotillard
(French and Japanese dialogue)

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