Two years ago Taken came as a bolt from a blue, a relentless and insane action thriller that introduced the crazy idea of Liam Neeson-- at that point known as Oskar Schindler, Jean Valjean, Rob Roy-- as an ass-kicking action hero. The movie made a fortune off its tiny budget and gave Neeson a taste for the big dumb spotlight, as he moved on to The A-Team, Clash of the Titans and now Unknown, which returns him and his specialized set of skills to Europe.
But sadly for all of us, Unknown is not a wild, violent fantasy like Taken, more of a Bourne Supremacy knockoff, in which a man with memory problems wanders around Berlin demanding some answers, dammit. For all that it crowds the frame with actors you love-- Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, even Frank Langella toward the end-- Unknown never establishes any identity or juice of its own, content to crib successful elements from other thrillers and present them with a shrug. Neeson commands the frame as always but is given so little to work with in terms of dialogue or character that the effect is diminished. As the story winds through a series of increasingly absurd plot twists and a conspiracy that feels disappointingly familiar, Unknown never stops being entertaining, but loses any claim it might have had toward something better.
Arriving in Berlin with his wife Elizabeth (January Jones, wooden and genuinely bad here) for a biotech conference, New Hampshire scientist Martin Harris realizes only once they've gotten to the hotel that he's left his briefcase-- containing his wallet, passport, everything-- at the airport. He jumps into a taxi to go back and retrieve it, only a freak accident causes the taxi to crash into a river, landing Martin in a four-day coma at a hospital where they can't even figure out his name. When he wakes and goes back to his wife, she doesn't just pretend she doesn't know him, but is accompanied by another man (Quinn) who's got all the documentation and even vacation photos to prove that he, in fact, is Martin Harris. You will hear the phrase "But I'm Martin Harris!" many times in this film, which guarantees I'll remember that character's name probably well after I've forgotten my own.
With the help of only his improbably gorgeous cab driver (Kruger) and an old Stasi spook who's good at solving strange mysteries (Ganz), Martin-- Neeson's Martin, that is-- spends the rest of the film putting together the pieces probably a little bit slower than you will. Neeson and Kruger build a nice rapport as they escape any number of perilous situations together, and though it's a spoiler to explain why, a scene late in the film between Ganz and Langella is rich with unspoken history and the overall skill of two acting veterans. But for the most part it's run run, chase chase, kill kill, over and over again, through endless gritty Berlin landmarks and, eventually, the glitzy hotel right by the Brandenburg Gate where all the trouble began.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps things moving and occasionally evokes Berlin's old split personality and Soviet paranoia , but he has none of the relish for action and violence that, say, Taken director Pierre Morel brings to his films. It's disappointing to see Unknown's secrets unravel and realize how familiar they are, since it had all the makings of something more unique. It's a perfectly reasonable time-passer, and yet another reason to fervently wish Liam Neeson would accompany you on any visit to a dodgy European neighborhood. But a second (or third or fourth) viewing of Taken would give you that, plus the jolts of energy this movie can't quite muster.