Usually the stars of action movies make their names in the genre “ starting young they get their break as a tough guy, then spend the rest of their careers trying to diversify, like Arnold Schwarzennegger’s move into broad family comedies, or Bruce Willis’ attempts to get into more ˜serious’ roles. Liam Neeson seems to have gone about his career in the opposite direction and Unknown continues the trend.
His big break came when he was Oscar shortlisted for his performance in Schindler’s List, which was a very serious film, and for a while he carried on in this vein. However, his most recent run of films, including Batman Begins, Taken, Unknown and The Grey suggest that, approaching his 60th birthday, Liam Neeson has become an action hero. Of course, we’re living in a post-Bourne action movie world, where action sequences seem to contractually obliged to feature lots fast cuts and where it’s more important for the protagonist to maintain a blankly indifferent expression while beating people up than it is to have rippling muscles. So while it’s not quite the same as Neeson turning up in Conan the Barbarian, him being in films like Unknown a surprising turn of events nonetheless.
In Unknown, Neeson plays Dr Martin Harris, an eminent scientist who has just arrived in Berlin with his wife (a somewhat wooden January Jones) for a big conference on something vague to do with biotechnologies. In the taxi to the hotel they have one of those conversations that crop up so frequently in films of this type, where they appear to be just chatting, but it’s clear that everything they mention is going to relate to a plot point later on. They arrive at their hotel, and Harris realises he has left his briefcase at the airport. He jumps in a cab to retrieve it, but before he gets there, there is an accident, the cab winds up in the river and he winds up in hospital in a coma.
Upon waking, he wastes no time in getting back to his hotel to find out why his wife doesn’t seem to have been worrying about him. To his consternation, it’s because she’s with another man, who claims to be Dr Martin Harris too. His wife also seems positive that this new man is the real Martin Harris and that Liam Neeson must be some kind of lunatic. He has no papers to prove he is who he says he is, and nobody in the city to back up his story. It’s all very bizarre “ is he going crazy? Has he lost his memory and made up his identity? It must come as a great relief when, shortly afterwards, a sinister man tries to kill him, thus proving that he’s not gone mad, and that there is in fact some shadowy conspiracy afoot.
And so Unknown’s Dr Harris goes about trying to piece together the events that led up to the crash, and tries to discover why his identity has been stolen. Along the way he shows a remarkable aptitude for fighting and advanced driving techniques. He’s assisted by the cab driver who was involved in the initial accident “ played by Diane Kruger with a not very convincing Bosnian accent (she tells him she’s Bosnian, I wouldn’t have worked it out on my own).
Unknown sees them rush around Berlin (because since Bourne, action films must be set in Europe), successfully looking very serious all the time, ignoring the plot holes and never wondering why the police never show up to investigate the numerous bodies that the characters are leaving dotted around Berlin.
In fairness, Unknown is neatly paced, and while the plot is ludicrous, it’s twisty enough to keep you interested and the inevitable big reveal at the end is nicely handled by director Jaume Collet-Serra (another one with a strange career path “ from Goal 2, via Unknown to landing the gig on the new version of Akira).
It’s all basically fine in a way that’s actually a bit depressing “ it’s hard to image it becoming anyone’s favourite film, and it’s hard to imagine that the makers ever thought it could. It is easy, however, to imagine that they foresaw it turning a healthy profit“ and indeed it did very well at the box office, grossing around $130m worldwide from a budget of about $30m.