Out of My Head
by Glenn Lovell
Now that Harrison Ford has pretty much retired from the frontlines, someone must pick up the slack as our Everyman Action Hero.
My money is on Liam Neeson, who won over genre fans with his undercover dad bent on payback in “Taken.” He almost single-handedly turned that mystery-vigilante thriller into a sleeper hit.
In contrast to the coolly efficient Jason Statham, Neeson has the hounded, downcast countenance of a born patsy. (Think Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble in “The Fugitive.”) You believe that this guy can be snowed by the bad guys, but you also know that he will retaliate in-kind when pushed just so far.
For “Unknown,” directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Neeson returns as Dr. Martin Harris, an American scientist who arrives in Berlin with wife Elizabeth (January Jones) to attend a biochemical conference. Before he can check into his hotel, however, Harris suffers a severe bump on the head. He awakes four days later with a slight case of reverse amnesia: Everyone, including his wife, has forgotten who he is.
Worse, another man (Aiden Quinn) has materialized at the conference to proclaim, “I’m Dr. Harris. Who are you?”
Eventually, Harris finds an ally, a pretty Bosnian cabbie named Gina (Diane Kruger). Gina saves Harris from certain death at least three times.
That’s the set-up for “Unknown,” which fuses elements of lesser Hitchcock ‒ think “Torn Curtain” ‒ with today’s bumper crop of high-tech espionage thrillers. Unfortunately, for all the attention to detail, this enterprise is all too familiar. And this makes for a monotonous, albeit bumpy, ride: The plot sort of drones along from one nasty encounter to another.
Collet-Serra, responsible for the much-underrated “Orphan,” treats the whole thing like vintage John le Carré. Not since “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” has Berlin looked so cold and sinister. The camera frequently picks out shifty faces in the background, and the script plays more than lip service to Germany’s shabby treatment of immigrants. Ernst Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of East Berlin’s Stasi security police, gives the obligatory speech about how everybody’s dirty in the dirty business of international intrigue.
Obviously such material can stand a good goosing. Collet-Serra obliges with some lethal hand-to-hand combat and a couple of high-speed chases, one involving a beer truck and a tram. Again, we’ve seen it all before. The car chases are always against the flow of traffic; pedestrians always leap out of the way in the nick of time; innocent peripheral characters are always marked for extinction.
Each situation is pulled off with a by-the-numbers precision. Sorely lacking is the dark humor Hitchcock invested in similar no-one-believes-me scenarios. I’m guessing that the source novel by France’s Didier Van Cauwelaert had more fun with the premise. Its title: “Out of My Head.”
While Neeson acquits himself reasonably well, considering we’re always several steps ahead of the guy, his co-stars would do well to stay away from high-stakes poker: Jones, Quinn and Frank Langella, as Harris’s trusted colleague, all appear to have studied the same playbook. They’re about as subtle as Sylvester the Cat with Tweety protruding from his mouth.
UNKNOWN. ✮✮ With Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aiden Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; scripted by Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell from novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert. 113 min. PG-13 (for violence, slight profanity).