Taken 2
Europa/20th Century Fox

At this point, you really have to ask yourself why anyone would knowingly choose to piss off Liam Neeson. But people keep doing it – Albanian thugs, the CIA, that pack of wolves, various Greek deities – and, well, the guy has to respond.

In his middle age, Neeson has created an odd niche for himself as the Noble Badass -- a well-appointed man with a comfortable life who’s capable of unleashing hell in the defense of that life. Kidnap his daughter and he’ll kill your entire family. Lock him out of your secret assassination plot and he’ll blow up half of Berlin. Threaten his godhood and he’ll release the Kraken. (The wolves were their own thing.)

It’s kind of a weird place for Neeson to be. With the exception of a few key pictures – Rob Roy, Michael Collins and maybe The A-Team – the actor has avoided macho action roles; even his characters in The Phantom Menace and Batman Begins were calm, mentor types who preferred to talk their way through problems before throwing down.

But something changed a few years ago. Neeson’s ruddy charm hardened, just a little, and suddenly he was the sort of guy you wanted to see punching half of Paris. That was the surprising appeal of Taken, which arrived in 2009 as just another one of Luc Besson’s European action quickies – dumped into theatres in the depths of winter with a shrug, basically – and turned into a sleeper hit, refusing to let go of the top spot on the box-office charts in much the same way as Neeson refused to stop beating up those Albanian mobsters who’d kidnapped his daughter.

There’s nothing particularly original about Taken; it’s basically Death Wish or Ransom or any of a dozen movies where a good man does bad things in the service of vengeance. The bad guys aren’t even particularly interesting – just the same polyglot assortment of Euro-sleazebags that serve as cannon fodder in Besson’s District 13 or Kiss of the Dragon or any of the Transporter movies. But Neeson as an unstoppable, hyper-competent avenging force? That’s something that grabs you. He’s an actor, not an action hero; he plays theemotional truth of every fight scene, showing us his rage and pain with every throat he crushes and every spine he snaps.

That’s the secret, you see: Neeson never lets us forget what he’s fighting for, and it’s the urgency in his quest to find his lost daughter, more than any of Pierre Morel’s directorial flourishes, that gave Taken its breathless energy. When that movie’s over, you never want to make Liam Neeson angry again.

Of course, an international hit demands a sequel, so we have Taken 2, which basically re-runs the events of the first film (bad guys threaten Neeson’s family, Neeson murders everyone in sight, then finds some more people and murders them too) in Istanbul. And if you’ve gobbled up all of Neeson’s post-Taken action roles, you’ll probably be happy to see him go through the paces here, too. But that’s all he’s doing; there’s no surprise in watching him slaughter gangsters this time, because we know he’s the toughest badass in the room at any given moment. (And the attempt to create a moral nemesis for him in the form of Rade Serbedzjia’s vengeful father doesn’t work, because neither we nor the filmmakers have any interest in moral relativity.)

I’m sure Neeson can make a third Taken movie if he wants to, but having seen him bring surprising complexity to the role of Zeus in Wrath of the Titans – where he manages to be compelling even when running around making wizard hands at people alongside his Schindler’s List co-star Ralph Fiennes – and after his remarkably soulful work in Joe Carnahan’s risky survival thriller The Grey, I’d like him to push out in new directions. Punching people to death is all well and good, but it’s no way for a family man to make a living.

E-mail Norman Wilner at houselightsup@hotmail.com.