It’s interesting, the career path that Liam Neeson has taken. He’s always kind of flown under the radar, even after starring in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning ‘Schindler’s List’ and flirting with big budget stardom in almost-hits like Sam Raimi’s ‘Darkman‘ or Jan De Bont’s remake of ‘The Haunting’. Then he moved on to the “experienced mentor” phase of his career with performances in ‘Batman Begins‘, the ‘Chronicles of Narnia‘ movies, and this past fall’s ‘The Next Three Days‘. Recently, he’s had something of a career renaissance, anchored (strangely enough) by the Euro-trash revenge flick ‘Taken‘. ‘Unknown’ is probably the most nakedly ‘Taken’-ish movie since then, a calculated recreation of the same type of formula, but with some nice new flourishes. And you know what? It’s fun.
Neeson plays Martin Harris, a doctor who arrives in Berlin for a medical conference with his comely wife (played by mad woman January Jones). He mistakenly leaves his suitcase at the airport. On the way back (he’s being spirited by the great Diane Kruger, playing an illegal cab driver), he’s involved in a car accident. He wakes up in the hospital several days later, after a brief coma, muddied with partial amnesia. When he arrives back at the hotel, his wife claims to not know who he is. What’s worse, she’s shacked up with another man (Aiden Quinn) who claims to BE Martin Harris! Can you imagine? Well, probably not, because none of this shit would ever really happen.
The thing about ‘Unknown’ is that the implausibility never really slows it down. As the mystery becomes deeper and more complex, you go along with it. Neeson hires a Soviet-era spook played by Bruno Ganz to do some private investigating, while Diane Kruger becomes his de facto partner-in-crime. Shadowy killers stalk our hero. In a great scene lifted from Brian De Palma’s ‘Dressed to Kill’, he tries to reconnect with Jones while dodging goons in an art gallery. The mayhem steadily intensifies, straining credibility until the breaking point, which culminates with a giant third act plot twist that threatens to dismantle the whole thing… But doesn’t. Maybe it’s the appearance of Frank Langella as a dapper villain, or the fact that Neeson is just a compulsively watchable character. He’s very much channeling his everyman avenger from ‘Taken’, but ‘Unknown’ is an altogether more stylish, sophisticated beast.
Most of this is to do with the canny direction from French filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, who’s fast becoming one of genre cinema’s brightest stars. He’s the same man who – despite being saddled with the stunt casting of Paris Hilton and a rather clunky script – turned ‘House of Wax‘ into a steadily intensifying thrill ride, and added genuine emotional depth to ‘Orphan‘, a shocker that climaxes in the revelation that an Eastern European dwarf has been masquerading as a young girl. This guy has made ridiculousness his bread-and-butter, and yet he pulls it off.
‘Unknown’ might be his best joint yet. That has much to do with the interlocking plot mechanics, which don’t allow for much narrative sag (his earlier films have had major pacing issues), and the swiftness of the storytelling. Whoever made the decision to shoot in Berlin (probably producer Joel Silver, who really loves the tax breaks and massive Berlin studio space), it’s paid off in full.
The whole movie swims in a kind of glossy European sheen. When you’re wondering how much more over-the-top it can go, it goes there! ‘Unknown’ is a yellowed paperback of a novel – something you pick up before you get on a plane and discard shortly after you land. But you know what? While you’re in the air, you’ll have a hell of a time. You probably won’t remember ‘Unknown’ long after you see it, but it’s a wild ride while you’re watching. That’s more than I can say for most movies.