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Liam Neeson is quickly turning “Liam Neeson goes crazy and kills everyone” into a sub-genre of its own. First there was the staggeringly far-fetched Taken, which entertains simply by virtue of one, simple truth: When he wants to be, Liam Neeson is a badass. The formula is applied again in this week’s Unknown, which could easily qualify as a sequel to Taken in more ways than you could possibly realize without seeing the movie.
Things don’t work out quite as well in this second outing for our budding genre, with any joy in watching the tale unfold stemming mostly from how hilariously lousy it all is. The story is patently ridiculous, and it becomes even more so when a late-game twist reveals that all of the elements you thought were just plot holes and poor story decisions were, in fact, puzzle pieces fitting into a much larger, more ridiculous picture. The movie was better when it was just dumb, although the twist does result in what is perhaps the single-greatest one-liner in Neeson’s career: “I didn’t forget everything. I remember how to kill you, asshole.”
The story opens on Neeson’s Dr. Martin Harris and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) as they arrive in Berlin for a biotechnology conference at which Doc Harris is supposed to deliver a presentation. In the rush to get from the airport to the hotel, a bag is left behind containing Martin’s passport. He leaves Liz and heads to retrieve the bag in a cab driven by Gina (Diane Kruger). An accident occurs, the taxi hurtles off a bridge and Gina saves Martin from drowning. He wakes up four days later in a hospital with fragmented memories and hightails it back to his wife, whom he assumes is worried sick. Only he gets there and she’s with another man, a man who identifies himself and checks out in every way as Martin Harris.
Clearly, something fishy is afoot.
The truth of Liam-Martin’s situation is a major spoiler that I’m not going to ruin in this review. You don’t really need to know it to understand the movie. This is a lesser Taken. Neeson is an unintended badass here, just a random putz stumbling around with half a memory and a whole lot of luck. He plays the role for all he’s worth and it’s something you can certainly have fun watching. But don’t confuse fun with quality, as you’ll find none of that here.
Kruger is just okay, harmless and ineffective, and Jones is perhaps a bit better, though she’s got far less screen time with which to prove herself. The two standouts — “standout” being used loosely here — in the supporting cast are Bruno Ganz as a former East German Stasi agent-turned-private detective and Frank Langella as Liam-Martin’s colleague Rodney Cole. Langella’s screen time is limited, but Ganz gets an opportunity to have some fun, sneaking around and being more clever than everyone else at every single turn.
Things start to make a little more sense when you consider the film’s director, Jaume Collet-Serra, whose previous work was the similarly hilarious, twist-driven Orphan. That and Unknown both prove that a final-hour twist that fundamentally alters your perception of the story doesn’t always make for a quality viewing experience.
In the end, Unknown is by no means boring. It’s actually entertaining and hilarious in its way; I’m just not sure it’s the way anyone intended for it to be. If I’m wrong and that is the case, then bravo to all involved. Bravo anyway. Each year sees a new wave of stupid movies, but only rarely do they bring with them this much fun. Some would argue that a movie can be both fun and good, and that much is true, but I argue that that doesn’t always have to be the case. In Taken good, stupid fun is enough. Unknown is just stupid fun, but you know what? It’s still enough.
Unknown opens today nationwide.