2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Rated: PG 13
Liam Neeson again runs amok in a European capital searching for something that’s been taken from him — but wait, this isn’t Taken 2.
And it’s not his daughter he’s lost this time, it’s his identity.
The film is Unknown, a thriller that wants so badly to be described as “Hitchcockian” that it has not one but two mysterious blondes, played by Diane Kruger and Mad Men’s January Jones. It’s a wonder director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) didn’t don a fat suit so he could ape the master’s famous cameos.
Let’s be generous and say that for at least the first hour of this patchy yet entertaining pulse-raiser, when the reliable Neeson is giving the script more than it deserves, there is some of Hitch’s fine balance of suspense and humour.
We sense from the get-go that something is a trifle off between U.S. botanist Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his comely wife, Elizabeth (Jones), and it’s not just the 25-year age difference between the two (a fact conveniently fudged when passports are revealed).
The couple arrives in snowbound Berlin for an international conference on biotechnology. But before they’ve even checked into their luxury hotel suite, Martin leaves Elizabeth at the counter, while he frantically cabs back to the airport to get the briefcase he left there.
He never makes it. The taxi he’s in, driven by the world’s most beautiful cabbie (Kruger), is involved in an accident that sends it flying off a bridge and into a river. When Martin awakes in hospital four days later, he’s told that he’s been in a coma and likely won’t recall much about what happened.
He has reason to believe he’s losing his mind altogether when he reunites with Elizabeth, only to have her coldly disavow all knowledge of him. Worse, she’s on the arm of a man claiming to be the real Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn).
The film plays more like a “whydunit” than a whodunit. Screenwriters Olivier Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, adapting a novel by French author Didier Van Cauwelaert, give us little reason to care about who the shadowy figures are behind Martin’s dilemma.
They could all have been cast from Spook Central Casting, so familiar are their moves — a car chase here, an ambush there — all from the cinema of paranoia.
The “why?” question intrigues, though. What’s the point of impersonating and hassling a botanist? Or to use the words of Bruno Ganz’s private eye character Ernst Jorgen, hired by Martin, “What could they gain from being you?”
The answer, alas, is far less gripping than one would hope. One could even call it corny (you’ll groan at this if you see the film).
Despite an impressive production budget allowing for many action scenes on Berlin streets and sterling support that also includes the redoubtable Frank Langella (his espionage pas de deux with Ganz is a highlight), Unknown feels inferior to Taken, the surprise hit of 2009.
That low-budget thriller, in which Neeson turned Paris upside down as an angry ex-spy in search of his kidnapped daughter, established the Irish actor’s action chops.
We get to see them in Unknown, too, if only briefly. The savvy Neeson has a knack for elevating even the most ho-hum of plots, even when he’s getting only perfunctory help from Jones and Kruger.
More than anything, Unknown whets the appetite for the inevitable Taken 2, when Neeson really gets to kick some butt. Here’s hoping.
Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for The Toronto Star.