Silver Screen: Unknown ***
Liam Neeson continues to age his way into unlikely badassery in Unknown, yet another thriller in which the former master thespian trades pontification for pugilism. You get the impression that if Schindler's List was made today, in his final speech he would have said, "This watch.... I could have used this watch to strangle a Nazi, then turned him into a human shield as I shot my way through the S.S. guards and karate-kicked Hitler out a window onto something pointy!"
Whether or not it's best use of his talents, it's strangely satisfying to watch Neeson brutalize his way through a string of bad guys. He's got both the stature to intimidate and the acting chops to turn cheesy thriller lines into, at the very least, satisfying B-movie brie.
In Unknown, Neeson stars as Martin Harris, an academic on a working vacation to Germany with his wife Elizabeth (Mad Men's January Jones). A taxi crash leaves Martin in the hospital, his memory scrambled, unable to recall key details of his life, and his wife is nowhere to be found.
The situation doesn't improve when he finds her-- not only does Elizabeth fail to recognize him, but she's at a party he was supposed to attend with another man (Aiden Quinn) who claims to be Martin Harris. Martin begins to doubt his own sanity until some murderous thugs come calling, leading him to suspect that not only is he the real Martin Harris, but that the man in his place is involved in some kind of conspiratorial plot. Enlisting the help of a taxi driver, an illegal immigrant living on the fringes of society (Diane Kruger of Inglourious Basterds), as well as a former East German Secret Police investigator-turned-private eye (Bruno Ganz), Martin attempts to unravel the mystery in the only way modern-era Liam Neeson knows how: By punching people in the goddamn mouth.
Unknown isn't terribly remarkable, but director Jaume Collet-Serra, who helmed the guilty-pleasure House of Wax remake and the passable horror flick The Orphan, does a solid job actualizing a script (based on a story by French-born novelist Didier Van Cauwelaert) filled with just enough credible twists to keep it exciting. It's far more competent than inspired, but it's also flinty and streamlined, as coolly efficient as its protagonist.
Though it's mostly concerned with its own semi-convoluted plot machinations-- and the less said about the movie's MacGuffin, the better-- between car chases and cryptic speeches, the film does delve a little into the fringes of Germany. Kruger's taxi driver is caught in the immigrant's dilemma of wanting to join society but being forced by legalities to remain on its margins, and her existence in the tenement slums of the city, existing within an ad-hoc underground network, is well rendered.
The film's best scenes, however, belong to supporting player Ganz, who was astounding in his performance as the Fü hrer in the Hitler's-last-days war drama Downfall. (That's Ganz in the seemingly endless series of YouTube parody clips of angry Adolf lamenting, among other things, the iPad and the breakup of the band Oasis.) Ganz's private investigator gets the movie's most interesting line, about Germany being a country invested in forgetting-- first forgetting culpability for the Nazis, and then forgetting the divide between the free West and the Communist East. That one scene lends a thematic heft that Unknown otherwise lacks. In just a few sequences, Ganz creates a character who seems more than able to command a movie of his own, and his final scene, with a late-arriving Frank Langella, is a terrific showdown between a pair of tremendous performers.
Ultimately Ganz's Continental private-eye storyline gives way to restrained action-movie theatrics, which is a bit of a shame, but Neeson carries it off nicely. If the climax is a bit predictable, it's also satisfying, and our hulking badass grandpa hero even gets off a sweet quip before delivering some bloody justice. If anyone is going to class up a killer one-liner, it's Liam Neeson.