Even though he has the face and build of a leonine Celtic warrior, there's also something gentle and mouselike about Liam Neeson. That's what makes him such an unlikely and invigorating action hero, and it's part of what made the 2008 thriller Taken so disreputably pleasurable: Somehow, watching this sad, sweet galoot zap Albanian bad apples with a jillion volts of electricity just felt so right.
So how could Taken 2 feel so wrong? For one thing, this follow-up was directed by Olivier Megaton, whose approach isn't as explosively brilliant as his totally fake name might lead you to believe. (The original was directed by Pierre Morel, a filmmaker of far subtler gifts, at least as far as action pictures go.)
And the plot mechanics of Taken 2 are so clunky and overloaded that even the eminently capable Neeson has trouble shouldering them: This time around, Neeson's retired CIA operative Bryan Mills takes pity on his estranged wife (Famke Janssen), who has split with her husband, and invites her and their perpetually clueless daughter (Maggie Grace) along on an easy-peasy freelance security gig he's landed in Istanbul.
Meanwhile, the relatives of the guy Neeson fried in the first installment have decided to take revenge on him and his family. You can tell they're bad because they have scrubby beards and scowling expressions; you can tell they're Albanian because they're wearing pleated pants and oversized leather jackets from the Who's the Boss? era. (The Taken franchise is never going to win any prizes for political sensitivity.) They scheme and plot and bark sentences like "He knows!" and "Do it now!" into their cellphones.
You just know what's going to happen: Janssen is going to get nabbed while strolling through the market stalls doing a little picturesque souvenir shopping, while Grace, back at the hotel pool stretching her long limbs near the silvery water, will be set upon by furry-faced creeps who scoop her up and sling her over a shoulder, even as she kicks, scratches and bites.
Actually, it doesn't quite go down that way — Janssen never even gets to go shopping, and Grace is told by her father, via furtive cellphone communique, to go into his hotel room and hide in the closet. Because that's the last place those people from Albania would ever look.
OK, no one wants realism or logic in a movie written by a certified French-roasted coffee bean like Luc Besson (the co-writer is Robert Mark Kamen, who also collaborated with Besson on the first installment). Taken 2 must not be taken 2 seriously, although at the very least Megaton could have found better ways to use all those glorious, antique-looking Istanbul backdrops.
On the plus side, the action sequences — desaturated, chopped up and herky-jerky as they are — are mildly thrilling: The sight of gentle-giant Neeson walloping the heads, kneecaps and nonmentionables of assorted thugs is pretty much enough to make the angels sing the Notre Dame Victory March. It's all the stuff around those scenes that needs a hefty rewrite. Or at least a little more shopping.