If you’ve seen the trailers for “Unknown,” then you probably have a pretty good idea of what it’s about and what it’ll be like: all those quick cuts of car crashes and blue-tinted European scenery; Liam Neeson again assuming the role of grumpily righteous avenger (something he brought a laser-like focus to in the sleeper hit “Taken“); and a number of tired genre clichés trotted out for the masses (mistaken identities, Soviet-era spies, a potential assassination plot).
And, you know what, all of this stuff is very much accounted for. But, in the end, that’s okay. Because “Unknown” really does know what it is and what it’s doing: it’s got a sense of humor about the tired tropes it indulges in, and director Jaume Collet-Serra adds a genuine sense of fun and excitement to virtually every suspense set piece that the movie executes (and there are a bunch). At times it strains credibility to the point of creaky preposterousness, but “Unknown” is still a charming little thrill ride.
The movie starts out with Liam Neeson, as a botanist named Dr. Martin Harris, traveling with his foxy wife Liz (January Jones) to Berlin for a big bio-tech conference. Upon reaching the hotel, he realizes that he’s left his briefcase at the airport, and so he hitches a ride with a taxi driver (Diane Kruger, clearly slumming it but having a good time doing so) to return to the airport. While en route, the taxi crashes into the river, Harris barely survives, and comes back to the hotel. It’s there that he confronts his wife, who acts as though they’ve never met. And what’s worse – she’s with another man (Aidan Quinn), a man who claims to actually be Dr. Martin Harris.
Neeson (whoever he may be) enlists the aid of a former spy (Bruno Ganz), who signs on as a kind of private detective, while evading shadowy killers and trying to piece together the puzzle of an even larger conspiracy (with the help of his plucky cab-driver-turned-confederate Kruger). Things get pretty convoluted but there’s enough intrigue and mystery to string you along, and the script never gets outright confusing. All of the running and shooting and hiding culminates with a third act plot twist of supreme ludicrousness, complete with an extended cameo by Frank Langella doing his “dapper villain” shtick that we last saw in Richard Kelly‘s underrated conundrum “The Box.” But we’re talking about a film by a director (Collet-Serra) who, in his last film “Orphan,” made the plot revelation that an Eastern European dwarf had been masquerading as a small child almost work with a semblance of emotional dimensionality. So going with the silliness here doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch, all things considered.
And, really, the relative success of “Unknown” has a lot of that has to do with the direction by Collet-Serra. He had previously turned the junky horror remake, “House of Wax,” at least for the last act, into gripping scream-along fun, and last helmed the aforementioned “Orphan,” which was a surprisingly solid horror sleeper a couple of years ago. One of the things he’s always been good at is giving a sense of escalating danger when choreographing suspense set pieces, reminding us of early-era Robert Zemeckis. There are a handful of such scenes here, ranging in scale and scope but always perfectly timed and orchestrated, from a large car crash in a parking garage to a moment cribbed from Brian De Palma‘s exemplary “Dressed to Kill” that takes place in an art museum. It’s his assured directorial hand that keeps the movie running smoothly (his previous films have been hampered by baggy pacing issues) and lets you overlook any narrative hiccups caused by the occasionally clunky script by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell (based on a novel by Didier van Cauwelaert).
Neeson, very much in his comfort zone, is another reason to give a shit about “Unknown.” True, he’s playing the same kind of outraged everyman that made people love “Taken” (a performance that he has, more or less, been milking ever since that film’s success), but here he’s more vulnerable and out of his depth. He’s just as confused as the audience is (his character is given partial amnesia, which lends shades of “The Bourne Identity” to everything), and it’s a blast to go along with him on the journey of discovery and intrigue. Some have bemoaned his current career trajectory as the selling out of a formerly great actor. And, to some extent, that’s true (“The A-Team,” anyone?), but if he’s going to keep choosing schlock, he might as well choose schlock like “Unknown,” a pulpy chunk of absurdist escapism that has a sense of humor about its own outlandishness. It’s a yellowed paperback of a movie, one you pick up for the airplane ride and never think about again. But even those hit the spot occasionally. Like right now. [B+]