The unexpected awesomeness of Taken derived from its unadorned simplicity: Commando with character development and the shockingly rah-rah sight of fiftysomething Liam Neeson inserting boots and bullets in bad guys’ asses.
Playing socially unassuming guys with everyman names and jaw-shattering abilities has become a cottage industry for 58-year-old Neeson — assuming Harrison Ford’s abdicated silver-fox action hero slot (even if Neeson still doesn’t look a day over 45). Sadly, Unknown is a sign that the shingles need attention.
It’s the polar opposite of Taken, cluttering a rehashed amnesiac-adventure plot with a clunky collection of Middle East politics, assassination attempts and, rather amusingly, agricultural biogenetics. What starts off as a captivating Berlin spin on Der Fugitive turns, boringly, into Die Bourne Ultimatum — down to destructive car chases with taxis and a Touareg.
Following up 2009’s underrated, diabolical Orphan, director Jaume Collet-Serra capably films the action, stylizes snowy Berlin as Central Europe’s answer to Chicago, slyly references The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Enter the Void, and is smart enough to give breathing room to the great Bruno Ganz as a former secret-police bloodhound on one last hunt.
But Unknown’s script works against him, sweatily and stupidly piling on plot in a way that’s exhausting, not exciting — neither delving into the psychology of guilt as did the Bourne films or even The Long Kiss Goodnight nor latching onto velvet suavity or slight sleaze that could’ve set intriguing narrative tones.
Neeson is Dr. Martin Harris, an esteemed scientist en route to a biotech conference in Berlin with his wife, Liz (January Jones). Martin realizes he’s left his briefcase at the airport and doubles back to get it, but a traffic accident sends his taxi tumbling off a bridge and into a river. Martin survives, but he’s cracked his skull and awakens four days later alone in a Berlin hospital — fresh out of a coma with no identification and no Liz. Only here does Neeson bring any nuance to Martin — telling a nurse about gifts Liz has given him less to make small talk, more to remind himself that she should be there and deepening his dismay over why she’s not.
Aside from that, Neeson can only pull off so many variations on the insistence of sanity. It’s a far cry from the dynamism that took him from try-hard, teddy-bear dad to gnashing-teeth, grizzly-bear warrior in Taken. Plus, as revelations pile up, the entire lost-briefcase linchpin makes no sense as a mistake Martin would make. Just why does Martin have to constantly assert that he’s in his right mind? Defying doctors’ orders, Martin returns to the hotel to find Liz who, upon their reunion, claims to not recognize him. Complicating matters is her introduction of another man (Aidan Quinn) as the Dr. Martin Harris to whom she’s married.
Not only does this Martin have Liz, but he possesses firsthand knowledge of private conversations and personal memories that only Neeson’s Martin should recall. (Quinn and Neeson unexpectedly play one scene together for uneasy but welcome laughs.)
Pursued by authorities and assassins, Martin goes on the run with Gina (Diane Kruger), the illegal-immigrant cabbie who saved him from drowning, and seeks help from Ernst Jürgen (Ganz), a Stasi star who’s turned to private investigations. In Ganz’s hands, a paycheck part is cashed into something that gives currency to the story — a dangerous man applying bulldog tendencies in sly ways to simultaneously help and harm Martin. Ernst’s brutal logic makes perfect sense, and he eloquently dictates a need for nations to reinvent themselves as history dictates in just a couple of sentences. (Trailers have shrewdly obscured another venerable character actor’s presence, though the sight of his name in the credits is a sure sign he’ll be up to no good.) Unknown needs not pause for moments with Ernst, but it does and unintentionally makes him the most intriguing, compelling character.
It sure as hell isn’t Liz. Jones has taken lumps for her vacant-stare turn as Betty Draper on Mad Men. It works for that character, often easily molded and manipulated by others. Here, when she utters “I love you” to Martin, it’s the limpest those words could sound outside of a soft-core porno trying too hard to emote. Jones clearly was cast only for her pin-up cross between Eva Marie Saint and Grace Kelly as the Hitchcock blonde.
It’s indicative of how Unknown overthinks the establishment of all its archetypes. Did Neeson really need a credited costume consultant and a personal costumer? A tailored, waist-length leather jacket would seem to equal instant badass to me. Unknown ultimately leaves you like one of its scared little-girl characters — confused about why an intriguing party had to be swapped for such charred rubble.