Most reviews and articles written about Unknown will surely concentrate on its star, Liam Neeson, and for good reason. Now 33 years into his highly accomplished career, the once-Academy-Award-nominated Irishman has drastically shifted his professional trajectory—he’s suddenly become an older, more elegant version of Jason Statham, with Unknown registering as Neeson’s second ass-kick-a-thon. The first was Taken, a seemingly generic actioner that put box offices in a chokehold back in late January 2009. Hauling in $25 million in its opening weekend, the simple yet effective tough-guy thriller went to cake up with a whopping $145 mil. And, really, not many can be mad at its success; Taken proved to be a cut above most first quarter Hollywood fare with convincingly brutal fight scenes, a tight script, and a surprising proficiency in the fisticuffs department for Neeson. So when the first trailer for Unknown surfaced late last year, familiarity quickly settled in; showing glimpses of Neeson beating fools down, the preview dripped with Taken sweat. The red flag immediately began to wave.
That’s what the majority of critical scribes will no doubt focus upon—Neeson’s second childhood, of sorts. Yet, what’s truly the most fascinating aspect of Unknown is the film’s director, Jaume Collet-Serra, because, truth be told, Collet-Serra is the main reason why this ludicrous but ultimately recommendable flick works so well. The fight sequences—though unexpectedly minimal—bob and weave with the visceral fluidity of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies. The second act car chase roars with tautness and an all-important sense of viewer comprehension, a factor that often derails erratic chases, like the bewildering van-against-van highway duel in The Dark Knight. And, most importantly, the paranoia and uncertainty overpowering Neeson’s character, Dr. Martin Harris, is made palpable with wavy camera jerks and odd-angle close-ups. All of this from a director whose debut feature film was 2005’s horrific (in all the wrong ways) House Of Wax remake—you know, the one notable solely for the sight of Paris Hilton getting a pole rammed through her skull. Four years later, the Barcelona-born Collet-Serra redeemed himself, fortunately, with the underrated and solidly conceived horror-thriller Orphan, but that creative victory didn’t hint at the guy’s action movie prowess. It’s because of Collet-Serra that Unknown doesn’t punch itself into irrevocable absurdity.
The script—adapted from French author Didier van Cauweleart’s novel of the same title—unravels like a mixture between the old Twilight Zone episode “Person or Persons Unknown” (where are the Rod Serlings heads at?) and an international conspiracy thriller. There’s also a third element at play: the shunning of originality. The stolen identity angle may add a slightly fresh spin to the genre, but not enough is done with it to generate end-game astonishment. Unknown takes few chances, far too often teetering into ridiculousness rather than intelligence. Dr. Harris (Neeson) and his hot wife (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a biotechnology summit, in which he’s scheduled to deliver a lecture. A car accident leaves the doc in a coma for four days, and when he comes to, nobody acknowledges him as “Martin Harris”; instead, a new, shorter guy (Aidan Quinn) is now recognized by his name, even by his wife. Self-handled investigations and a The Fugitive-style race against time commences, with an involuntary but feisty sidekick (Diane Kruger) along for the ride.
As its central mystery is frantically pieced together, the script finds a nice balance of stone-faced intrigue and self-aware humor. Much of the cleverly earned laughs are attributed to veteran Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who owns every one of his scenes as an ex-Stasi German spy hired by Harris to play detective. It’s a terrifically handled performance, elevating what could’ve been a humorless plot-mover—a la Martin Balsam’s Detective Arbogast in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—into a standout through dry wit and valuable gumption. Save for Jones’ curiously robotic turn as Harris’ deceptive spouse, Unknown is efficiently acted, especially in Neeson’s case. He can slum it in the action genre for as long as he wants; still developing his character’s emotions and gravitas, Neeson layers the film with class, which makes his brutal TKOs during the fights all the more rewarding. The man can even make one-two combos seem urbane.
On a highfalutin scale, Unknown isn’t ideal entertainment; it’s all been seen before. But in February’s current wasteland of big studio releases, this far-from-innovative action-thriller has its salvaging pair in Neeson and Collet-Serra. Look at this way: In a film by the director who shot Paris Hilton’s death scene and the actor who took home a statue for Schindler’s List, that’s way more than should be expected.