By Matt DeKinder
Liam Neeson has stumbled onto a title not usually acquired by men in their late 50s: Action Hero. With the surprise box-office hit “Taken,” Neeson became such a dogged, blood-splattering force for good that it became clear the 21st Century had found its Charles “Death Wish” Bronson or Clint “Dirty Harry” Eastwood.
Neeson takes up this badass mantle again in “Unknown,” yet another little solidly made, grownup thriller. While Neeson does play a decidedly different character this time around and “Unknown” features a much less direct plotline, the spiritual kinship to “Taken” is unmistakable.
Neeson plays Martin Harris, a doctor traveling to a conference in Berlin with his wife Elizabeth (January Jones). After forgetting his briefcase at the airport, Martin hops back in a taxi only to be knocked unconscious in a wreck that sends the vehicle crashing into a river.
He is pulled to safety by Gina the taxi driver (Diane Kruger of “Inglorious Basterds”) but spends the next four days in a coma. When Martin wakes up he discovers that he has no identification and that nobody, including his wife, seems to remember who he is.
In attempting to prove his identity, Martin enlists the help of Gina and former East German secret police officer Ernst Jurgen, played by venerable German actor Bruno Ganz.
Americans likely will recognize Ganz from his portrayal of Hitler in the exceptional film “Downfall,” a movie most people are familiar with thanks to various Internet clips where the subtitles have been replaced to make Ganz’s Hitler rant about everything from the Dallas Cowboys to the Republican Party.
Anyway, while attempting to reclaim his life, it becomes clear that Martin is at the center of some very sinister events, the machinations of which he must uncover or wind up dead.
Much of the first half of “Unknown” is a slow burn as Martin struggles with the frustration of losing his identity and questioning his own sanity.
You might even start to think you are watching a purely psychological thriller; that is until all the punching, car-chasing and exploding launches “Unknown” into a higher gear.
As an action flick, “Unknown” is tightly-drawn and satisfying, very much akin to what you might find in a “Bourne” movie. Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (who until now has been best known for directing lousy horror movies like “Orphan” and the remake of “House of Wax”) actually shows a lot of restraint by never letting the plot twists or action sequences come across as overly ridiculous.
While the rest of the cast is solid (including supporting turns by Aidan Quinn and Frank Langella) this is Neeson’s movie all the way.
His anguish and confusion take center stage until enough is enough. Then Neeson’s relentless determination takes over. I think having dinner with Neeson would be a stressful proposition, especially in a situation where you both were reaching for the last buffalo wing. Because if he wants that last wing, HE’S GOING TO GET THAT LAST WING!
Without Neeson, “Unknown” is an average movie at best, but with him an air of authenticity creeps into the film making it worthy of your time an attention. “Unknown” isn’t revolutionary or transcendent, but for action/thriller fans it’s a great way to spend two hours.
“Unknown” is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content.
Mat DeKinder was once described as the “Jackie Moon of film critics” by a guy named Nate.