Action fans expecting another righteous display of ass-kicking from Liam Neeson may feel slightly let down by “Unknown,” which casts the “Taken” star as clueless prey rather than ruthless predator. Playing a mild-mannered botanist battling amnesia, paranoia and identity theft while stranded in Berlin, Neeson works hard to hold interest as director Jaume Collet-Serra puts this competently entertaining piffle through its twisty paces. But beyond the occasional plot frissons and juicy supporting turns, it’s an emotionally and psychologically threadbare exercise, likely to do solid short-term biz but lacking the gut-level satisfaction needed to play like gangbusters over the long haul.
Kicking off its Feb. 18 release with an out-of-competition Berlinale screening, the Brit-German-French co-production may well encounter a warmer reception abroad, given its Euro setting and an international cast that includes Neeson, Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz, Aidan Quinn and Sebastian Koch.
Something feels intriguingly off in the early reels as an American couple, Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife, Elizabeth (“Mad Men’s” January Jones), arrive for a biotechnology conference in snowy Berlin. Realizing he’s left his briefcase behind at the airport, Martin leaves Elizabeth waiting at the hotel and hops a taxi, which, in a nicely orchestrated episode of vehicular mayhem, careens off a bridge and into a river.
Awakening in a hospital after a four-day coma and suffering from fuzzy memories, Martin rushes back to the hotel to find his wife, and is shocked when Elizabeth looks him in the eye and claims not to know who he is. Instead, she clings to a man who not only claims to be the real Dr. Martin Harris (Quinn), but also has the passport to prove it. Desperate to figure out why the world no longer recognizes him and why various thugs are trying to kill him, Martin realizes his only hope of staying alive and uncovering the truth is to track down the taxi driver, whom Martin is told also survived.
The cabbie turns out to be Gina, a streetwise immigrant played by a feisty but unpersuasively deglammed Kruger. In some ways, however, Neeson’s casting is even more discomfiting. There’s only so much time a movie character can spend desperately trying to convince people he’s not crazy, and even the actor’s usual suave gravity can’t make those notes sound any less tediously high-strung. “Unknown,” which self-consciously quotes Hitchcock in its use of wrong men, icy blondes and third-act MacGuffins, unquestionably rates several IQ points above “Taken.” But after the take-no-prisoners action chops Neeson showed off in that 2008 smash, to deprive the actor of his special skills until the very end of this fight-heavy movie doesn’t just feel perplexing; it’s downright uncommercial.
The choice seems even more misjudged once Collet-Serra (“Orphan”) gets around to unveiling the solution to this puzzle (adapted by Olivier Butcher and Stephen Cornwell from a novel by Gallic author Didier Van Cauwelaert). The conceit that’s meant to bamboozle us has already been dealt with more effectively in past films, though to name them would spoil the surprise; suffice to say the final explanation here is unsatisfying not because of the imaginative leap it requires, but because of the failure of nerve it represents. Spun a slightly different way, this conceit could have yielded a more unsettling, viscerally cranked-up thriller than the one we’re given, in which Martin and Gina run a proficient but pro-forma gantlet of car chases and explosive escapes through Berlin’s back alleys.
Along the way, they leave a trail of pissed-off German bureaucrats in their wake, and in its sharper, drier moments, “Unknown” seems to function as a wry essay on certain aspects of the Teutonic psyche, from the national obsession with efficiency to shadowy remnants of the country’s political past. If Koch’s presence here (as one of Martin’s colleagues in science) doesn’t remind viewers of his role in the East Germany-set drama “The Lives of Others,” their memories may be jogged by the introduction of Ernst Juergen (Ganz, deliciously creepy), a wily ex-Stasi agent who places his detective skills at Martin’s service. The film’s strongest scene is a meeting between Juergen and an American associate (Frank Langella), which, in the hands of these two veteran actors, positively tingles with menace.
Berlin itself casts a wintry spell as filmed in widescreen by d.p. Flavio Labiano, though destabilizing lensing effects intended to cast doubt on Martin’s mental state — a tilting camera, color-saturated flashbacks — border on ludicrous.