Somewhere hidden in the San Fernando Valley, there must be a factory that churns out action-thrillers of the caliber of Unknown (opening Friday, 2/18/11) the same way a factory produces furniture.
No muss, no fuss, interchangeable parts -- and a rotating list of actors who have fallen out of the 'A' list in terms of carrying a movie, unless it's a factory-extruded piece of prefab entertainment like Unknown.
Such, it would seem, is the fate of Liam Neeson. He was never a real box-office draw -- just a solid craftsman who briefly flirted with above-the-line stardom and has settled into a career of independent and foreign films, mixed in with the kind of genre detritus like Unknown (or Taken or Clash of the Titans or The A Team) that obviously pays the bills.
Taken was actually quite a relentlessly entertaining film, featuring a performance of grim determination by Neeson, who drove Luc Besson's vehicle with brutal tenacity. Unknown, by contrast, is a movie of fits and starts, as a biophysicist finds that his identity has literally been stolen; even as he tries to figure out whether or not he's losing his mind, he has to run for his life.
Neeson plays Martin Harris, first seen flying into Berlin with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones). But when they arrive at their hotel, he discovers that a crucial valise has been left at the airport. Without telling his wife what's going on, he hops into a taxicab and heads back to the airport.
But the taxi in which he's a passenger has an accident that sends it flying off a bridge and into a river; though Martin is rescued by the driver (Diane Kruger), he doesn't come out of his coma for four days. And when he awakens and goes looking for his wife, he finds her with another Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) -- who has all the ID necessary to prove that he's the real Martin. So who is Neeson's Martin?
To find out, he digs up an old East German secret police official, Jurgen (a puckish Bruno Ganz), to figure out how someone else stepped into his life (right down to the vacation pictures).
It feels like a Philip K. Dick story though it's less complex than that. But to discover the truth, Martin has to stay alive while being chased by the cops and an anonymous group of bad guys. Say -- if he's a research scientist, why does he have those reflexive hand-to-hand skills?
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) keeps the action relatively plausible, at least within this realm (where assassins infiltrate hospitals and leave dead medical personnel hidden in closets while disguising themselves in white doctors' coats). And he's got a force of nature in the strapping Neeson, who, at 58, is still an imposing specimen. But the script forces Neeson to spend most of his time looking anguished and perplexed. And while the dead ends he reaches in pursuit of his identity are a natural part of the story, it makes the plot feel as though it has to lurch back to life after each lengthy bit of exposition.
Still, as this kind of product goes, it's relatively efficient and diverting. In other words, it's entertaining in a nothing-else-to-watch kind of way. Which makes it the best of a bad lot on a dreary February movie weekend.