Neeson’s still formidable, but ‘Taken’ franchise is spent

Sure, he’s a bit of a control freak, what with using techno-gizmos and spy contacts to locate his daughter’s boyfriend’s place and then showing up unannounced to pull her out of there.

But if you’d survived “Taken,” the surprise 2008 hit that transformed Liam Neeson into an action star, you’d be touchy, too. Neeson’s character, the former U.S. spy who had to rescue his teenage daughter from kidnappers in the first movie, hasn’t mellowed much in “Taken 2.”

Yes, that’s the title, and the movie proceeds with an equal level of imagination. This time out, the Eastern European patriarch (Rade Sherbedgia) whose son did all the kidnapping in the previous picture is out for personal revenge.

So this time the ex-spy’s daughter (Maggie Grace) isn’t the only one targeted; the bad guys want Neeson and his estranged wife (Famke Janssen) too.

Just about the time the kidnapping comes off, the movie clicks into gear. Tragically, we need to sit through far too much exposition before that happens, as the characters interact and tell jokes and feel emotions and all the other boring material that isn’t remotely convincing in these circumstances anyway.

It’s only when push comes to shove that producer/co-writer Luc Besson quickens to his bread and butter. Besson always has an ingenious idea or two stashed in his bank of movie concepts, and here it’s fun for a while watching Neeson communicate with the confused daughter about ways they can find each other, despite the fact that he’s chained up in a dungeon somewhere in Istanbul.

It has to do with grenades, naturally, but let’s not give away all the good stuff. And there is some good stuff, even if this one falls far below the kicky level of the first “Taken.” (There’s been a switch in the director’s chair, from Pierre Morell to Olivier Megaton — perhaps this explains the droop.)

Neeson’s still in tough-guy form, although by setting the bar so high in “The Grey” earlier this year (you will grow chest hair watching that performance), he’s already moved past this level of connect-the-dots action.

And Luc Besson may be running out of ideas, even if Istanbul makes for a scenic backdrop (and even though the seeds for “Taken 3” are firmly planted here). The variations on how a cellphone can operate as an espionage device are infinite, but there are only so many ways you can shoot a car chase through cobblestone streets. And the “Taken” series has already exhausted them.

“Taken 2” (2 stars)

Another go-round for ex-spy Liam Neeson, this time in Istanbul, where his family is at the mercy of murderous kidnappers once again. There’s a fun action picture in the middle 45 minutes of this movie, but producer Luc Besson is running out of ideas (and anything that isn’t straight action is painful to witness).

Rated: PG-13 for violence, language.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Meridian, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Blue Fox Drive-in, Cascade, Oak Harbor.

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