A couple of years ago, Liam Neeson starred as a former CIA agent in "Taken," searching for his kidnapped daughter and kicking as much butt as necessary to find her.
Now, he's continuing this fascinating late-career path, remaining in action-star mode as he creeps ever closer to 60, in "Unknown." It's a chilly little thriller about amnesia, mistrust and lost identity, with the kinds of chases and explosions you've seen countless times before. Interchangeable Euro baddies lurk in the shadows, seemingly omniscient and omnipresent, waiting to strike. Nothing and no one is what it seems, which makes the unpredictability somewhat more predictable.
Still, Neeson's always-intelligent screen presence, his nuance and gravitas, help elevate "Unknown" beyond its preposterous elements. And he gets great help from a classy supporting cast, including Frank Langella, Bruno Ganz and Sebastian Koch.
And, to be fair, the film from Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has its suspenseful moments, including the startling, precisely staged car accident that sends Neeson's character on his dangerous journey. Collet-Serra's last film was "Orphan," about a creepy 9-year-old girl who wreaks havoc on her unsuspecting adoptive family. "Unknown," which Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell wrote based on a novel by Didier van Cauwelaert, doesn't have anything even remotely resembling the gnarly, jaw-dropping twist of that earlier film, but it's got some surprises here and there, and it ought to keep you guessing for a while.
Neeson's character, botanist Dr. Martin Harris, has plenty of his own guessing to do. He's traveled to Berlin for a scientific conference with his beautiful wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), but soon after they arrive at their luxurious hotel, he realizes he's left his briefcase — with their passports — at the airport. When he hops in a cab and dashes back to retrieve it, a chain-reaction crash sends the car skidding through the streets and off a bridge into a river. The driver (Diane Kruger, vaguely de-glammed) pulls him from the vehicle, saves his life, then runs off. Martin, meanwhile, is taken to a hospital, where he lies in a coma for four days.
When he awakens, he has only vague memories of who he is; against a doctor's orders, he hurries back to the hotel to find Elizabeth. Not only does she look him in the eye and insist she has no idea who he is, but she's there with an entirely different man (Aidan Quinn) who says he's Dr. Martin Harris — and he has the passport to prove it. (Then again, Jones has the kind of icy, blonde good looks that Hitchcock often favored, so you know there's more to her than meets the eye.)
From here, Martin goes on a quest to piece together what happened. He seeks out the cab driver, whom he learns is an illegal immigrant named Gina, hoping she can provide some clues as to who he is and where he was going. Ganz, the veteran star of such films as "Nosferatu the Vampyre" and "Wings of Desire," is deeply eerie as a former Stasi agent Martin hires to help him investigate his identity. He adds a feeling of menace even though he's a good guy, and his confrontation with Langella, as a colleague of Martin's who's come to Berlin supposedly to help, crackles with tension.
As Martin and Gina evade one attack after another from the mysterious people who are out to get them, he discovers all kinds of useful skills he never knew he had. And as "Unknown" reveals itself, you may discover that it reminds you of another, superior movie — one that we will not name here for fear of giving away the twist. But Collet-Serra makes the story move with enough style and energy that you also may not care.
"Unknown," a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content. Running time: 106 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.