I'm starting to become convinced that if Liam Neeson released one action thriller every February from now until kingdom come, the first quarter of every moviegoing year would be much more consistently interesting than it currently is. Neeson has transformed himself from the austere thespian who once appeared in 'Schindler's List' and 'Kinsey' to a credibly physical (albeit decidedly mature) action star -- a matinee idol with actorly bona fides and a bruiser's physique.
And 'Unknown,' his latest entry in this almost shockingly irresistible series of "Neesploitation" pictures, is like its predecessor, 'Taken': pulpy and absurd, but utterly watchable, the kind of movie that you will almost invariably prefer on a Sunday afternoon to either the submoronic blockbusters like 'Clash of the Titans' or even the arid dramas for which the actor was previously known.
In 'Unknown,' Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a visiting scientist who starts to lose his marbles after his cabbie Gina (Diane Kruger) swerves off of a Berlin roadway into a canal. Awakening from a coma to discover that his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) hasn't visited him once, he frantically tells his doctors who he is, and races to his hotel to find her. When he arrives, however, he discovers that Elizabeth doesn't seem to know who he is, and is in fact married to another man (Aidan Quinn) who himself claims to be Martin Harris. Enlisting Gina to help him uncover the truth about his accident, Martin soon finds himself being pursued by mysterious figures as he begins to discover not only is his life not quite what it seems, neither is the identity to which he desperately clings.
The thing about Neeson as an actor is that there's something instantly respectable about him; perhaps not unlike the wizened authority of someone like Morgan Freeman, he exudes a kind of seriousness that makes almost anything happening around him seem vaguely believable. In that sense, his acting talents are somewhat better used here in 'Unknown' than they were in 'Taken,' where he was less a character than a blunt instrument (although to be fair, he did that brilliantly too). The difference, and the intrigue of this story, is precisely his desperate search for the truth, less about the singularity of one answer than a larger, more encompassing explanation about how he and his life came to arrive at this crossroads of identity. Meanwhile, of course, there's plenty of action, but it's his frantic insistence on figuring out what's happening, and who he is, that gives the film a veneer of deeper substance.
Indeed, the action in the film is all pretty impressive, if as a colleague observed a little too perfectly choreographed to be, say, an impromptu car chase, or showdown in a dilapidated apartment. But in particular, a tense confrontation in a hospital is extremely effective, and the centerpiece car chase is extremely well done - an exciting, high-energy set piece taken from the same blueprints used in 'Ronin,' which should similarly earn the film deserved place in movie car chase history.
On the other hand, the film is (as it seems almost every movie is these days) overlong by at least ten minutes or so, especially when there's so much back and forth between Neeson's character and a small collection of compelling but in several cases superfluous supporting players. Bruno Ganz plays a retired spook who agrees to help Harris figure out who he is and what's going on, and he steals practically every scene in which he appears, but his work in the film doesn't have the molecular-level relevance that it needs in order to consume so much screen time; rather, his character seems as if he's part of another, smarter film which the filmmakers pilfered his scenes from and then shoved them into the action of 'Unknown.' While that may sound like a bad thing, it does in fact improve the dramatic weight and the scope of the story, but it's just slightly unfortunate that the two halves of this political thriller couldn't come together into a more cohesive whole.
Predictably, there are a number of third-act twists, and one in particular seems to exist purely to wrap up one specific plot detail rather than feed any larger sense of logic; but then again, beyond Neeson's performance as Harris, almost all of the characters feel extraneous, and a few of the performers, especially Jones as his estranged wife, fail on almost all levels to communicate a substantive identity against which Harris struggles to find his own. Aside from Kruger being the most improbably attractive driver in grunge-cabbie history, she contributes little except for a requisite partner for Harris once his relationship with his wife starts to deteriorate.
Ultimately, that's the biggest problem with the film – namely, that the guy who doesn't know who he is somehow manages to be the most fully and clearly defined character in the film. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously shot 'Orphan,' does his best work to date here, at the very least overshadowing the majority of the camp of this material with glossy respectability that suggests he's equally capable as any other studio helmer to take on larger projects. But not unlike 'Orphan,' it feels too polished by half – a 'Bourne Identity' knockoff without either the sophistication to distinguish itself from its predecessor or the shamelessness to embrace its theft.
As such, 'Unknown' falls short only because it, like its main character, doesn't quite know what it is, so even though the film manages to be a lot of fun, one can only hope that Neeson's next film will have a better sense of self by the time next February rolls around.