To age brutishly is Liam Neeson’s apparent career goal—with Taken, Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, and now Unknown, the actor continues to follow the Nicolas Cage path from respected thespian to big-budget ass-kicker. In this tepid thriller from Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan), Neeson is Dr. Martin Harris, who, after arriving in Berlin to attend a biotech conference with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), almost dies when his cab takes a plunge off a bridge into a river. Harris suffers one of those only-in-the-movies head conks that, once he awakens from a coma four days later, leave him all kinds of cognitively confused. Things only get worse when, upon exiting the hospital, he reunites with Elizabeth, who now acts as if she doesn’t know him, a baffling turn of events exacerbated by the fact that she’s with a man (Aidan Quinn) claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris. Bewilderment gives way to paranoia gives way to run-for-your-life desperation once Harris finds himself stalked by expressionless hitmen, leading him to solicit help from Gina (Diane Kruger), the illegal-immigrant cabbie who saved his life, and Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former East German secret service agent; both prove conveniently capable sidekicks for Harris during his frenzied quest for the truth.
For all its similarities to Taken—Neeson as a brooding hero not to be taken lightly, a European-capital setting, and the key role of an Arab sheik (Mido Hamada)—Collet-Serra’s film is less neo-exploitation than wannabe-Hitchcock. Too bad, then, that its central mystery hinges on an early reaction shot from Jones that the Mad Men beauty flubs completely, thus sabotaging the subsequent hour and a half of suspenseful misdirections and red herrings aimed at keeping questions about Harris’s muddled reality up in the air. As on the small screen, Jones’s mannequin-vanilla good looks and margarine-commercial-ready smiles reveal little animated inner life, much less the specific one eventually required by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s script (based on Didier Van Cauwelaert’s novel Out of My Head). Additionally, the actress seems dwarfed by Neeson during their initial scenes together, awkwardly feigning both lovey-dovey marital bliss and ambiguous, potentially sinister coldness. When she’s replaced at Neeson’s side by Kruger, the film shows a tiny flicker of life, though this switch does little to alter the material’s gradual devolution into tedium, as tension and intrigue flag thanks to a plot that, regardless of Collet-Serra’s sleek, proficient direction, is destined for a preposterous outcome.
As with its protagonist, Unknown boasts tantalizing issues buried deep beneath its frantic exterior, but little idea how to unlock or address them. An introductory airborne pan across sun-dappled clouds suggests the afterlife and, thus, a possible forthcoming riff on Point Blank’s fever dream of revenge and psychosis. Alas, Collet-Serra’s continued fixation (following Orphan) on secret, dueling identities—which here can be lost and found, embraced or altered at a moment’s notice—plays out with the same type of fantasy-land ridiculousness found in the very special episode of Diff’rent Strokes in which blows to the noggin magically give Mr. Drummond amnesia. Neeson remains an intimidating over-50 tough guy, his towering frame and glowering visage exuding a granite hardness tinged with compassion. Yet despite its series of fights and chases—including a muscular auto-pursuit sequence through bustling nighttime streets and sidewalks—Unknown largely cages Neeson’s aggression until its finale, a too-little, too-late gesture for a project predicated on its star’s newfound badass reputation. Instead, the only heat comes from a one-off showdown between Ganz’s former spy and Frank Langella’s trenchcoat-clad active one, their tightly wound scene of cool, methodical gamesmanship standing in direct contrast to the rest of the empty-headed espionage shenanigans.