Liam Neeson has done what Nicolas Cage has tried and failed to do: transition from dramatic actor to action star. Even though Cage has an Oscar and Neeson doesn’t (though he was nominated for his performance in Schindler’s List), it is Neeson who seems to have a better awareness of his limitations and has carved out a far more respectable career, successfully navigating between genres much like Harrison Ford, another actor who makes all the right choices.
Three years ago, Neeson dramatically altered his career trajectory with Taken, a straight-up thriller that had Neeson’s character kicking ass in every way. It was a departure for him, certainly, but, unlike Jake Gyllenhaal’s disastrous recent attempt to reinvent himself as an action superstar in Prince of Persia, Neeson was perfect and a new career path was forged.
Neeson’s current film, Unknown, can easily be categorized as Taken, Part II, as it is, in mood, tone and genre, another chance for Neeson to kick ass—-and kick ass he does.
Neeson plays a man whose identity is taken away from him after a car crash lands him in a coma for four days. He is in a strange city (Berlin) and his wife doesn’t even recognize him, so he alone must prove to everyone who he really is while trying to thwart the people who are now apparently are trying to kill him.
So, immediately, this film reminded me of Frantic (speaking of Harrison Ford), another film about an American stuck in a European city trying to unravel a mystery. Each film is set in an iconic European city that serves not just as a backdrop for amazing location shots, but also provides the mood and tone of the film. Each film features a protagonist who starts out naïve and somewhat innocent but is forced to find his inner badass in order to solve the mystery that has taken over his life. And, in each film, our hero relies on help from a beautiful young woman, without whom they would not survive. Unfortunately, though, the similarities between the two films end there. While Frantic is a well-paced true thriller with well-built characters and tension that holds you on the edge of your seat, Unknown feels much more forced, with action clearly outweighing suspense. And if you’re looking for character development, you’d be better off watching the Justin Bieber movie.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan), Unknown is incredibly inconsistent and has plot holes you could drive a tank through. But it has a kernel of an interesting idea and has a slew of solid performances, including the under-rated Diane Kruger, the under-used Bruno Ganz and the always solid Aidan Quinn and Frank Langella. Even January Jones, the world’s most beautiful one-note actress, is serviceable. But even with all the support, Unknown is still clearly Liam Neeson’s movie and he does a pretty good job, despite the script’s sore lack of character development.
There are some car chase scenes that are a lot of fun to watch (Mercedes certainly get their money’s worth here) and Kruger and Neeson do have some good chemistry on film, probably because they both are naturally good actors. But, overall, Unknown is a run-of-the-mill action movie that holds your interest for 2 hours. Sadly, in the doldrums of the February release schedule, I’ll take what I can get.