REVIEW: Unknown Actually Just Tired, Familiar Same-Old From Liam Neeson
When someone makes a list of the most influential movies of the last decade -- has EW done that yet? -- The Bourne Identity should get its own category, not only because of the ruthless efficiency of its action sequences but also for the detached competence of its star, Matt Damon, whose deportment while stalking the gray, shadowy streets of West Europe suggested a man on a mission while lost in a dream. In the intermittently diverting Unknown -- there could also be a compilation of movies with that title -- Liam Neeson borrows from the Bourne playbook, as an American stranded in mysterious Berlin, his brow knitted even deeper by the fact that, after recovering from an accident, he's been replaced in his life by someone claiming to be him.
The notion of combining Taken and Roman Polanski's Frantic makes for a clean graft here. And in the first 20 minutes of Unknown, as Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is trying to convince strangers -- and himself -- of his identity, the film has the power of the paranoid thriller conjured by filmmakers going back to the silents. The details of his life -- before the accident that sends him into a coma -- stack up, like his much younger trophy wife (January Jones). And Harris' desperation to get his personal life back while on the streets of a place he doesn't know is compelling (it worked in Frantic -- parts of it, anyway).
The movie is at its best when it dwells on the periphery of mainstream Berlin: the idea of Harris having to use the illegal immigrant society to make sense of himself -- a dislocated man assisted by people who don't want to be located while they toil in an underground economy, which Dirty Pretty Things dramatized so achingly. Harris turns to the margins and hires Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), a creaky-jointed former East German Intelligence man turned p.i. to help in his search. As Neeson and Ganz chat, the feline aspect of their speaking voices is like listening to a pair of cats talk; their breathing even has that lulling, furry rumble. Add Frank Langella's silken malevolence and it's one of the sporadic beats of effectiveness here -- his scene with Ganz gives Unknown a weary theatrical lusciousness.
An unintentionally amusing moment pops up when Neeson is asked his nationality by a German Customs Agent; when he purrs "American" in what is supposed to pass for a U.S. accent, the official gives him a "Who do you think you're kidding?" look before letting him pass. That's the effect Unknown hits once the film settles into action thriller territory; that familiar sensation of seat-gripping and eye-rolling as Neeson slips from one threatening situation to another aided by Diane Kruger in the Emmanuelle Seigner role.
When, to paraphrase New Order's "Blue Monday" (which is heard in the movie), that final moment materializes and Neeson gets to stand erect and employ his athlete's physical arrogance -- which he's been forced to hide through much of Unknown -- it's a satisfying piece of American cheese, and director Jaume Collet-Serra takes great pleasure in opening that individually wrapped slice.
Taken shrewdly exploited Neeson's peculiar combination of cruiserweight presence and reassuring intensity; he was the most comforting assassin ever seen in such an impersonally violent tableau. And that's eventually what Unknown is -- violent, impersonal and comforting.