After toiling for the past decade or so as “The Mentor Who Gets Killed In The First Reel Of Every Hollywood Epic,” that husky-voiced oak tree of an actor Liam Neeson made a curious career decision. Pushing 60 years old, the Oscar nominee has abruptly decided to give Jason Statham a run for his money, passing on prestige pics and knocking in the skulls of Eurotrash baddies in some slickly engineered B-movies. This is not an unwelcome development.
Much like Neeson’s surprise 2008 smash Taken, director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Unknown finds the hulking master thespian lending unexpected depth and gravity to a preposterously entertaining globe-trotting potboiler. Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, a renowned botanist visiting Germany for an international biochemical conference when a nasty taxicab accident leaves him with partial amnesia. After four days in a coma, Martin returns to his hotel, only to discover that an imposter (Neeson’s one-time Michael Collins frenemy Aidan Quinn) has swiped his identity and is now playing house with his wife (Mad Men’s beautiful, cardboard January Jones.)
Sleekly confident in its fundamental silliness, Unknown sends Neeson down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, botched assassination attempts and impeccably shot, wintery Berlin landscapes. The expertly executed hooey brings in Diane Krueger as the world’s most glamorous Bosnian refugee cabbie, as well as a wonderfully droll performance by the legendary Bruno Ganz as a bored ex-Stasi agent nostalgic for the heyday of Communism. Late arrival Frank Langella gets right into the spirit of things as Dr. Harris’ disturbingly supercilious colleague, sharing one instant classic of a scene with Ganz as these two old pros prove that understatement and scenery chewing need not be mutually exclusive.
A MacGuffin involving genetically engineered super-corn is curiously fitting, as Unknown is nothing if not turbo-charged corniness. But it is also a movie that knows what it’s doing and does it very well. Like Taken, it’s the kind of flick that will play forever on cable. Key to the appeal is Liam Neeson, busting heads and breaking limbs as cinema’s most badass botanist. Judging from the boffo box-office numbers and roaring crowd I saw it with, this fine, acclaimed actor is now finally a movie star.