Forget Harley-Davidsons and 20-something girlfriends — the newest trend for male leads having their second mid-life crisis is action films. Two years ago, 50-something Liam Neeson starred in the surprisingly OK Taken , a high-body-count revenge flick that had him practicing his “combat roll and reload” sequences. His latest foray is Unknown , a good-enough-for-February film that doesn’t quite meet Taken ’s not terribly lofty standards.
In Unknown , Neeson (Schindler’s List, Kinsey ) plays scientist Dr. Martin Harris, who has just arrived in Berlin for an important conference. Accompanying him is his lovely wife Elizabeth, played by January Jones (Betty Francis on “Mad Men”), who was likely born after Dr. Harris completed his doctoral dissertation.
After arriving at their swanky hotel, Harris realizes his briefcase and passport were left at the airport. He quickly hails a cab, leaving his wife to check in. En route, a car accident sends Harris plunging into an icy river, where his own taxi driver Gina (Diane Kruger) saves his life. Harris suffers a head injury, his heart stops and, even worse, he loses his Blackberry. Although foggy after a four-day coma, he seems to remember who he is; however, things turn bizarro when he discovers that someone has seamlessly assumed his identity.
Before the halfway mark, Unknown feels like a twisty psychological thriller; after the halfway mark, it devolves into a geriatric version of The Bourne Identity in which the first action sequences are a little tardy to the party. Unknown is best during its early “huh?” moments, before screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell begin spoon-feeding viewers clues via fairly bad, exposition-laden dialog. For instance, after Neeson’s character reconnects with Gina, the Bosnian taxi driver that saved his life, a two-man hit squad ends up killing Gina’s friend. “I am sorry,” says Neeson, who has become so wooden that he has temporarily stopped using contractions. “I brought more trouble into your life. I’ll try to make up for it, I promise.” “I know,” says the Bosnian.
Unknown is a step in the right direction for untested director Jaume Collet-Serra, whose previous efforts include House of Wax (you know, Paris Hilton’s other movie). Screenwriters Butcher and Cornwell — who haven’t created anything of note in the past 15 years, if ever — are adequate matches for Collet-Serra’s questionable talents.
Even playing a paper-thin character with virtually no back-story, Neeson is likable; likewise, despite his age, he’s believable in his handful of jumbled, visually incoherent fight scenes that are unfortunately becoming the new gold standard for modern action scenes. To further tip the enormous imbalance between off-screen talent and on-screen talent, Frank Langella ( Frost/Nixon ) shows up late and demonstrates, in just a few seconds, why he’s too good for this movie.
A middle-of-the-road kind of flick, Unknown seems to specialize in small disappointments — both its characters and dialog are letdowns, and its plot has holes big enough to drive a Volkswagen Touareg through. A good re-write would’ve done wonders, but instead, Collett-Serra seems content to let his stars shine bright enough to obfuscate these shortcomings, which they very nearly do.