The latest Liam Neeson thriller/action/mystery movie, Unknown, has been referred to as Taken 2 – after Neeson’s 2008 Taken – for its car chases and fight scenes in a European capital (Taken was set in beautiful summery Paris, Unknown in dark wintertime Berlin, complete with shots of the Brandenburg Gate).
Even the similar movie posters play on that resemblance.
However, despite its wonderful provenance (Taken was a surprise smash hit) and kickass status (Neeson’s spun a terrific new thread as an action hero), Unknown is no Taken 2.
It’s much, much better.
The plot is the classic “who am I?”: Martin Harris (Neeson), who works with genetically improving crops, arrives in snow-scattered Berlin for a conference, accompanied by his wife of four years, Elizabeth (January Jones). Arriving at the conference site hotel, Martin discovers his briefcase (into which he dropped his passport) has been left behind at the airport, so he leaves Elizabeth to check in while he hails a taxi driven by illegal-immigrant Gina (Diane Kruger). The taxi crashes, Gina saves Martin from drowning in the River Spree, then runs off before she’s deported. Martin wakes in hospital four days later, remembering little but his name and flashes of his back-story. When he returns to the hotel, Elizabeth claims not to recognize him . . . and his identity has been taken over by another man (Aidan Quinn). Martin is distressed, imploring, betrayed, angry.
He’s the real Martin Harris, isn’t he? Time to prove it.
Which he does in increasingly assured ways (à la The Bourne Identity). Who is this guy, anyway? A nurse directs him to a former Stasi official (Bruno Ganz) who uses his intelligence connections to “find people”. Martin also tracks down Gina, whom he convinces to help re-create his first hours in Berlin, leading them into murkier territory and, of course, the inevitable baddies. There are enough twists, turns, and red herrings to satisfy most suspense fans, plus action and explosive pyrotechnics.
A word about the chase scenes. My favorite car chase scenes were set in Nice and Paris, in 1998’s Ronin. Then there was Taken, fabulous chase photography, also in Paris. With Unknown, I was on the edge of my seat as Martin and Gina hurled their cars through downtown Berlin, avoiding trams, trucks, bikes and bad guys. Mostly avoiding them. They escape with scratches.
I enjoyed Unknown, despite a niggling sense that someone ought to have suggested checking Martin’s fingerprints – perhaps they’d be on file at his workplace. And shouldn’t his increasing skill in dispatching lurkers with hypodermics give him a clue about his former life? Or do we assume the Krav Maga classes worked out really, really well?
One amusing note: Four trailers played before this movie, one for a rom-com, three for action flicks. This proportion was the exact opposite of the audience’s: three-quarters were female. In the ticket line, I stood behind two women with a teenage daughter apiece – the girls peeled off for Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, while their mothers headed for Liam Neeson. Someone needs to tell theater owners to pitch their trailers heavily toward the female demographic.
Because older women kick ass.