Whenever I tell a certain kind of movie buff that Unknown is pretty good, they immediately want to know how it compares to Taken, that Liam-Neeson-as-killing-machine movie that made serious bank in the U.S. in 2009 despite having sat on the shelf for ages as bootleg copies proliferated on the Internet. The answer is that for all their similarities — the old-school action vibe, the European settings, the generally focused efficiency of narrative — they are also quite different.
Taken works on a purely visceral exploitation level, using the ongoing human-trafficking crisis as a convenient hook for a violent, formula thriller about a kidnapped girl and her rescue by Superdad. Unknown is more ambitious, spinning a ludicrous but engaging story about Martin Harris (Neeson), a botanist visiting Berlin with his wife. When Martin gets into a freak car accident that leaves him in a coma for four days, he wakes up with not just no identification, but also no identity. The police don’t believe his story. He has no German colleagues to vouch for him. His wife (January Jones) fails to recognize him. And, worst of all, his wife is hanging on the arm of another Martin Harris, some other man who is pretending, for no apparent reason, to be the same semi-famous botanist.
As movie crises go, identity theft is not quite on the same level as sexual slavery, but Neeson works hard to convey a similar degree of indignation. As a result of his efforts and the fluid directorial touch of director Jaume Collet-Serra (whose Orphan is one of my favorite cheeseball thrillers of recent years), the first two-thirds of Unknown are admirably tense in spite of their corny touches and stock characters, like Neeson’s helpful German peeps, a beautiful immigrant cabbie (Diane Kruger) and an aging ex-Stasi officer (Bruno Ganz). (The main things that separate this medium-budget hard-PG-13 adventure tonally from its somewhat bloodier R-rated 1970s and 1980s forebears are the fashionably monochromatic cinematography and the complete absence of sex and/or nudity.)
Where Taken simply leans on a succession of ever-more-intense action sequences featuring fistfights and much gunplay (you must watch the “unrated” version of that one, no excuses), Unknown is a more sensible, classically constructed thriller with a bit more characterization and better-executed set pieces, including Neeson’s escape from a hospital gurney and a well-staged car chase. The film’s final act, which ties loose ends and kicks asses, allows Neeson to firm up his tough-guy resume but is, unfortunately, more than a little flabby. As a result, Unknown is not as brutishly effective as Taken, a movie that leaves you feeling like someone’s just had their way with you, but it’s got more smarts to it. It’s nothing special; just a good-enough time at the movies.