Liam Neeson had an odd career resurgence two years back with the action thriller “Taken”. Long known for more serious, dramatic fare, ever since then he’s appeared in a steady stream of action fare – “The A-Team”, “Clash of the Titans”, “The Next Three Days”, none of which really made a good impression with me. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that his newest effort – the Jaume Collet-Sera-directed “Unknown” – is a well-done, engaging mystery-thriller.
In it, Neeson plays botanist Martin Harris. He and his wife Liz (played by “Mad Men”s January Jones) are in Berlin for a summit of some of the world’s great minds. Just as they arrive at their hotel, Martin realizes he left some baggage at the airport and takes a taxi to retrieve it. Unfortunately, his taxi drives off a bridge and he’s rendered in a coma for four days. When he wakes up and heads to his hotel, however, he’s met with another person there, named Martin Harris, and a wife who claims not to recognize him.
Martin must now claim his identity back, and uncover these people’s motivations for taking his place and robbing him of everything he’s ever had. To assist him, he hires a stout private detective (played by Bruno Ganz in one of the more amusing aspects of the film). He also seeks out the woman, Gina, whose cab the accident took place in, to try and prove his identity.
“Unknown” has a more intriguing premise than most – whereas most action movies operate on a man vs. man scenario, this one deals with identity, and in more ways than one messes with one’s head quite a bit. Neeson’s character’s constant uncertainty gives “Unknown” a certain paranoia that makes it more tense to watch than otherwise, it gives the film a really great sense of urgency and unrest. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography frames Berlin in an interesting, often atmospheric way.
Neeson is dependably solid here, but let’s not kid ourselves and think this is any great stretch for him as an actor. He needs to do very little here aside from speak urgently and run around, and Neeson does so with style and intensity. The side cast — January Jones, Diane Krueger, Frank Langella — are all strong supporting cast members. But it’s Bruno Ganz, the German actor most famous for his take as Hitler in 2004’s “Downfall”, who gives the movie an unexpected, yet welcome quirkiness. Ganz’s stout presence is a sight gag all its own, but his delivery of his lines, bordering on muttering, is perfect.
But alas, “Unknown” is at its core, a mystery-thriller, and so, like so many of its kind, constantly conjures plot twists that keep you interested at first, but dizzy later down the road. This is particularly evident in the final 20-minute-stretch of “Unknown”, where there’s a massive plot revelation that feels more random than it does important.
All that said though, in the barren cinematic landscape that is February, “Unknown” is an impressively made, competently acted thriller. It gets a little too ahead of itself, and bungles some revelations that should have hit harder, but it’ll keep you guessing and keep you content for two hours. B