Liam Neeson was already an Academy Award-nominated star when director Pierre Morel's "Taken" was released in 2008, but the movie's sleeper success made audiences look at the actor differently.
His portrayal of Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative on the hunt for his daughter's sex-trafficking kidnappers, became a cult success and made him a full-fledged action star at almost 60. As such, "Taken 2" barreled into theaters this weekend, bringing in $50 million. It's the first film to make that much in three days since "The Dark Knight Rises" in July.
"Taken 2" is not so much a sequel as it is an extension of the first movie. The Albanian brothers of Neeson's victims demand vengeance. "The dead cry out to us for justice," says Murad Krasniqi, the film's villain played by Rade Serbedzija.
This time the director is France's Olivier Megaton, who reportedly adopted his last name because his birthday falls on August 6, 1965, 20 years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. It would seem subtlety isn't his forte or his movie's.
Espionage is synonymous with explosions in the "Taken" series, along with pretty much every film representation of the CIA -- from Jack Ryan to Jason Bourne. "That's always the intention in Hollywood," says Melissa Boyle Mahle. "That's the Hollywood shortcut."
A covert CIA operative for 16 years, Mahle knows about what she's talking. "My area of expertise was the Middle East and counterterrorism," she says. "I did the classic work that Americans think spies do overseas."
She chronicles her experience, as much as she's able to, in her book "Denial and Deception: An Insider's View of the CIA." The book takes a look at Mahle's work as well as the post-Cold War culture and structural issues with the agency.
Considering Mahle's blond hair, you think she'd stick out like a sore thumb in that part of the world. "You can certainly blend in if you are of Middle Eastern ethnicity, but we adopt cover stories that allow us to live, work and move through these societies in ways that look very natural and normal within the context of their engagement with foreigners," she says. Sometimes that also included traditional dresses and veils. "We know the language, we know the societal norms -- things we can and cannot do and what will draw attention to you."
Neeson throws any form of clandestine operations out the window as the Albanian terrorists take him and his ex-wife, played by Famke Janssen, into their desolate torture room of chains and pipes.
After his ex-wife is hung upside down with a bag over her head, Mills calls his daughter Kim (who was taken in the first "Taken" film). The first plan is for her to make her way to a U.S. Embassy, but she refuses. She needs to help her father despite the post-traumatic stress disorder she may be suffering from after her own sex-trafficking experience.
"You can only train so much for something like that," Mahle says of an abduction scenario. "We know that when you're caught by a terrorist, you have a bad outcome in front of you, and you hope for either immediate rescue or a quick death." But operatives know the risk, Mahle says. "If you're going to be so focused on the risks, you're not going to be able to do your job."
Mills' Plan B involves his daughter using a shoelace, a sharpie and some hand grenades thrown on the streets of Istanbul, Turkey, to help pinpoint his location. From an audience standpoint, it makes no sense and perfect sense all at once.
"It's very hard to be a clandestine operator if every time you walk through the door something blows up," Mahle says. "That makes a good film, but it doesn't make very good operations. Espionage, by its very nature, is a mind game. People don't wake up and decide to trigger countries in vengeance on a whim."
The vengeance in "Taken 2" is in full force as Kim and her father seek to sort out the group of Albanian misfits. This includes a wild ride through the streets that is a bit of a ridiculous premise but does allow for some father-daughter bonding time that's important given the pair's somewhat rocky relationship. Mills' relationship with his ex-wife is also strained because of his former career as a CIA operative.
"It takes a special kind of person to live in a world that we create for ourselves," Mahle says. "In your personal relationships that are not part of that clandestine world, there is an element of omission and people can feel that."
Despite the opportunity for leaving out details about her life, Mahle points out that her whole career was based around figuring out people. "I've been married to my husband for forever, and we figured out a way to make it work."
But living undercover means lying to everyone -- including children.
"Here we are trying to (raise) upstanding, honest Americans, but we're lying to them from Day One, and we're doing it for the specific reason of protecting national security," Mahle says. "When you choose that moment to say, 'By the way son, I've been lying to you all along,' that's hard.' "