Cool things an old spy can do:
1. Believing his car is being followed through the streets of Istanbul by men who mean him no good, he can spit out precise and elaborate instructions for his wife to escape through shops and down streets of the city’s bazaar. Then he dispatches five of his pursuers in one brief battle.
2. When kidnapped and blindfolded by Albanian gunmen, he can rely on his photographic memory, both visual and aural, to determine within a few blocks the location of the hideaway he and his wife have been taken to.
3. Using a tiny cellphone, he can communicate from the hideaway to his daughter in an Istanbul hotel, telling her to lob grenades onto one rooftop or another so he can lead her to his secret location. (It helps that his captors haven’t frisked him or left a guard to observe his movements.)
4. Noticing that his cell has a vent leading to the roof, he can tell his daughter to look for smoke coming from a rooftop stack, go there and drop a gun down it. (Some more luck required here.)
5. When face to face with the villain-in-chief, he can apply the mystic face grip, which has the ability not only to cloud men’s minds but, in a trice, end their lives. His merest, mesmeric touch puts bad guys into the big sleep.
Those are just a few of the espionage skills demonstrated by Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills in Taken 2, a hyperdrive sequel to the 2009 thriller that cost $25 million to produce and earned nearly 10 times that at the worldwide box office. Taken also elevated Neeson from supporting roles in big-budget franchises (Star Wars, Batman Begins) and leads in artier films (Michael Collins, Kinsey) to a B-plus level of action stardom. Other thrifty, manly fare followed — Unknown, The Grey — plus a stint heading The A-Team. Now a sturdy 60, Neeson is among the most reliable and appealing modern movie heroes.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Taken)
Recall that, in Taken, Bryan, a retired CIA agent, went to Paris to save his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), abducted by white-slave traders. In the sequel, directed by Olivier Megaton from a script by Robert Mark Kamen and producer Luc Beson, Murad (Rade Serbedzija), father of the gang leader whom Bryan had hunted down and killed, swears a mission of vengeance on behalf of his son and all the grieving widows, mothers and orphans in the Albanian underworld. Learning that Bryan has invited Kim and her mother Lenore or Lennie (Famke Janssen) for a family-rehab vacation in Istanbul, Murad kidnaps Bryan and Lenore, while the frazzled but resourceful Kim escapes another covey of killers in the hotel and combs the city to find her parents.
The first movie established that Bryan was divorced from Lenore and deeply possessive of Kim — so much so that paternal care approached felonious stalking. Three years later, he gives a neck-swivel of suspicion when Lennie tells him that Kim has a boyfriend. (Kim must be in her early twenties by now; the actress who plays her is 29.) To Bryan, any guy who snuggles with his daughter is automatically in the pedophile category. He won’t even let the young woman drive the family car. “I’d rather do it myself,” he tells Kim. “I’m a little obsessive that way.”
(READ: Corliss on Liam Neeson in Unknown)
He’s a lot obsessive in every way; perhaps it’s the residue of a secret-service career. So the forward movement of Taken 2, aside from doubling the number of kidnap victims, is in Bryan’s trusting Kim enough to save his and Lennie’s lives — including insisting that she steer a stolen taxi through Turkish traffic while he fires away at the Albanians behind them. When she desperately demurs, he asks, “Do you know how to shoot?” “No.” “Then drive.”
Megaton, whose real name is Olivier Fontana, assumed his nom-de-film because he was born 20 years to the day after the U.S. dropped the A bomb on Hiroshima; his direction aspires to the power and noise of an atomic blast. Taken 2 doesn’t quite get there, though Nathaniel Méthaly’s score is a series of thunderclaps — the sound track of a fireworks display over the Bosphorus. The percussion pounds in accompaniment to the movie’s hundred or so car-chase scenes, all of which have a thrill factor to maintain the audience’s rubbernecking attention.
(READ: Corliss on Liam Neeson in The Grey)
Seemingly bent on rekindling his romance with Lennie, Bryan is easily distracted: twice he leaves his wounded wife unattended while he slips away to kill more bad guys. Yet somehow Neeson makes the ridiculous plausible. A mature, real man in an era of superhero fantasy, he radiates something rare in movie musclemen: a haunted gravity to match his outsize physique. His sad, knowing eyes are both a window and mirror, offering a vision of the atrocities a strong man must have seen, may have committed. And, oddly, the actor looks younger as the movie goes on, as if he and Bryan were energized by mortal danger. His recent action films aren’t great, but he should keep making them, and better ones, to prove to his older admirers that, for a certain Irish action star, life begins at 60.