Neeson cuts an unlikely figure as an action hero. Tall, ungainly and with big, clompy feet, he doesn’t run, he galumphs. My exhaustive research also suggests he’s rubbish at sport and was the kid that got picked last for a kick-around with his mates, and it’s really only thanks to a gifted editing team that he can appear to be a master of hand-to-hand combat.
But Neeson also has an appealingly gentle demeanor that means he can convince as a devoted father (as in Taken) or a devoted husband (as in this film) in a way that other action stars can’t. So when those nasty Euro-baddies poke him with a stick enough times, his voice transforms into a growl and he starts lumbering after them with a dogged determination that is strangely appealing. You root for the big lug. This could be why 2008’s cheap Euro-actioner Taken, a career choice that initially seemed to be the result of a mid-life crisis, became such a global hit and Neeson was able to reinvent himself as an action star.
In Unknown, Neeson plays Dr Martin Harris, a botanist (again, Neeson can play a botanist without people giggling in a way that Jason Statham can’t. The Stath would have to play an ex-kickboxer-turned-botanist. Hmmm... *emails pitch for Kick-Botanist to Statham’s agent*). Arriving at a luxury hotel in Berlin with his stunning young wife (Jones) for a biotechnology conference, Martin realises he’s left his briefcase at the airport. Jumping in a taxi driven by improbably beautiful Bosnian cabbie Gina (Kruger), he heads off to retrieve it but is involved in a car crash that leaves him in a coma for four days. Emerging bewildered from the coma with no recollection of the crash, and no ID, he returns to the hotel to find that nobody recognises him, not even his wife, who treats him like a complete stranger. Worse still, she’s at the hotel with another man (Quinn) who claims to be the real Dr Martin Harris. Martin is ejected from the hotel onto the streets of Berlin, with nothing but a few Euros in his pocket. Teaming up with Gina, he begins to investigate with a view to lumbering/galumphing after the nasty people that stole his identity.
Unknown reminds me of films like Polanski’s Frantic, where an American doctor in Paris for a conference emerges from the shower to find his wife has disappeared, or Harrison Ford thriller The Fugitive” (in fact one action beat has been lifted directly from that film). Large sections of the plot are reminiscent of The Bourne Identity. However, Unknown is perhaps too derivative and daft to be considered in the same league as those films. The film has been somewhat misleadingly marketed as a sort of unofficial follow up to Taken, but it actually contains much less action of the hand-to-hand combat kind. In fact, the film’s most brutally punished victim is suspension of disbelief, which takes an eye-wateringly harsh beating as the plot twists and implausibilities pile up: Neeson’s nurse conveniently knows a nice ex-Stasi agent who helps him in his investigation; a car chase ends in a crash outside a busy Berlin nightclub where Kruger’s character conveniently knows the bouncer so that they can quickly hide inside (I’m glad nobody challenged Neeson to a dance-off in there, that’s one fight his size 14’s would undoubtedly lose). The film also contains a twist that means a couple of early scenes make no sense.
But even as you find yourself wanting to ask more and more questions, the film just gleefully sticks its fingers in its ears and goes “La la la I can’t hear you!”, and you find yourself submitting and enjoying the ride. The success of Taken has clearly led to a bigger budget this time around. What action there is is better and more coherently staged (the aforementioned car chase is easy to follow and pretty exciting), and the film even has a few expensive looking digital effects. Perhaps the most telling sign that this film is a cut above Taken is its cast: supporting roles are raised above their ordinary dialogue thanks to some terrific turns by the likes of veteran German actor Ganz, as the former Stasi agent, and Langella as a colleague of Neeson’s. Ganz and Langella share one subtle and nicely written scene that feels like it came from another, better spy film.
In the end though, it’s Neeson that holds this cheerfully far-fetched potboiler together. He’s the only action hero I want say “Come here you big lug!” to and then cuddle, and that’s got to count for something.
EXTRAS ★★ A pretty poor collection for a Blu-ray release ... all we get are: the featurette Unknown: The Story (4:04); the featurette Behind the Scenes (4:23); the featurette Liam Neeson: Known Action Hero (4:23); interviews with the cast and producers; the theatrical trailer.