Nobody thought there'd be a "Taken 3."
"I never thought there'd be a 'Taken 2'!" said Maggie Grace who, as the daughter of Liam Neeson's resourceful ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills, has been through a lot, including one of the more successful -- and surprising -- recent franchises in a contracting movie universe.
"I think they thought the original would go direct to DVD," she said. "We were blown away when it became this juggernaut. There had been a shake-up at the studio; in Japan, it was already online then they saw what they had."
What the original had was a bona fide actor, Neeson, at its center, along with a virtually irresistible action-thriller plotline -- invincible father tries to save virginal daughter from sex slavers. The fact that Neeson's character, Bryan, ex-government operative and security expert, could do just about anything except keep his own family out of the clutches of homicidal Albanian evildoers was not something that seemed to bother audiences, who were caught up in the action, revenge plot and Neeson's imposing physicality.
"It's better not to study the details too closely," laughed Famke Janssen, who plays Bryan's wife, Lenore, and has had her own run of luck with franchises ("X-Men," for instance, in which she plays Jean Grey/Phoenix). Lenore's luck, on the other hand, runs out in "T3": Bryan is framed for her death, and while hunting down the real killers has to elude the authorities, who include Forest Whitaker.
In addition to Neeson's initial denials that a second sequel would be made -- it opens Friday -- there were the customary discussions, which Janssen said went on for a long time. "I think even between 'Taken 1 and 2' there was a lot of talk," she said. "I was one of the last ones to know and got into it late. And I'm not in it very long."
The women of "Taken" have not had an easy time of it. Lenore, for instance, was hung on a chain and left to bleed to death in "2." Kim was abducted, abused and humiliated in "1." Grace said not much has changed in "3."
"I love playing strong women in other things," said Grace, who was a longtime cast member of "Lost," recently appeared in "Californication" and was in "Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn," episodes 1 and 2. "But this remains the character we built and picks up where we left her. She's always going to be an ingénue in many ways. Besides, 'Taken' is an emotional journey and the heart of the film is the relationship between father and daughter."
The continuing appeal for audiences is something both actresses have ideas about. "Taken" came out in 2008, and Janssen thinks the country was in synch with Bryan Mills' thirst for vengeance.
"I think it hit a chord with a lot of Americans," said the Dutch-born actress. "Especially given the timing. There was nothing they could do about these horrible attacks and they could live vicariously through a man who was avenging the kidnapping of his daughter, who was going out on a limb and being extremely proactive. I think people felt a little paralyzed at the time and they could identify with this guy."
For Grace, much of the series' appeal has to do with Neeson himself. "I really think having a substantial actor at the center of the movies is a huge part of the success," she said. "He's not a predictable action hero; he's an actor's actor, and as Bryan Mills you can see it costs him something: He's struggling to connect, struggling to be a father. It's really about his weaknesses more than his strengths. He's just a soulful person, so I think that's a big part of it."
Both women had kind words for their co-star. "Aside from being great to work with, he's a generous warm person," Grace said. "This is the final film and it's more like ending a TV series that's gone on for a long time; the cast members are like family. It's been a blessing in my life."
About Neeson, Janssen agreed. "He's really redefined what an action star is, by becoming one at age 60," she said. "Up till 'Taken' it wasn't common to see someone in that age category do movies like this. He's an extremely gifted actor who's done a lot of different types of roles. Now he's enjoying a new type of career."
The "Taken" franchise has gotten a lot of mileage out of being built around a serious actor, one who never seemed inclined toward Hollywood stardom, never mind success as an action hero. But both have come to Liam Neeson, the 6-foot-4 Northern Ireland-born star, whose career dates back to the '70s and who early on appeared in a slew of U.K. film and television productions (as well as a memorable 1993 Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie," which also starred his wife-to-be, Natasha Richardson). Once Steven Spielberg offered Neeson the lead in "Schindler's List," the actor never looked back. The following are among his pivotal on-screen moments:
DARKMAN (1990) Before he got into the "Spider-Man" game, then-cult director Sam Raimi cast Neeson as the horribly disfigured victim of gangland violence, a scientist who uses his research into artificial skin to recreate himself and wreak vengeance on his assailants. The film got solid critical support; Neeson's career was reshaped.
SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) The winner of seven Academy Awards, Spielberg's Holocaust drama earned an Oscar nomination for Neeson as the industrialist credited with saving 1,200 Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
MICHAEL COLLINS (1996) Neeson gave a powerhouse performance (and earned both a Golden Globe nomination and the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival) for playing the controversial Irish Republican hero for director Neil Jordan.
KINSEY (2004) Going a bit off his personal grid for director Bill Condon's biopic about celebrated sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, Neeson showed range, comedic timing and self-effacing humor in what remains a funny, informative, and to-no-small-degree-sexy movie. Laura Linney, as Kinsey's wife Clara McMillan, did get an Oscar nomination. Neeson should have.
THE GREY (2011) An adventure film, but one with a surprisingly resonant spirituality, director Joe Carnahan's plane-crash story starred Neeson as a survivalist and huntsman who becomes his fellow roughnecks' only hope when their plane goes down in the middle of uncharted Alaskan tundra. They don't listen to him. They should have.