Review: Liam Neeson kicks some butt in the implausible but hilarious ‘Unknown’

I think we’re being punked.

I’ve never met Jaume Collet-Serra.  Never spoken with him.  All I can judge is the way he approaches his films, and so far, he strikes me as a prankster.  It’s sort of like with Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant, two very funny guys who also write movies like “Night At The Museum” and “The Love Bug.”  It feels like they’re writing these films almost as a dare to studio executives.  “Go ahead.  Tell me I’m not taking this seriously.  Tell me you understand comedy well enough to explain why something does or doesn’t work.”  And when no one calls them on it, people actually make these movies and treat them like they’re meant to be good.

With Collet-Serra, he has made a grand total of four movies now.  One of them, “Goal II: Living The Dream,” is part of a trilogy of soccer movies that all pretty much look and play the same, so you can’t really judge it as his.  With “House Of Wax” and “Orphan,” though, I got the same feeling watching both movies.  He’s obviously skilled with a camera, and there’s a playful sense of style to what he does.

But the movies themselves?  Totally bats**t crazy.

And the feeling I get as I watch these films is that Collet-Serra totally knows that.  I think he reads a script and decides, “Oh, this is obviously written by a crazy person.  OF COURSE I want to direct it.”  I know David Johnson, who wrote “Orphan,” and while David seems like a perfectly charming, intelligent, sane person, I would say “Orphan” proves that there are great churning seas of madness just below that surface.  That is one wackadoo thriller.  It’s fun because it is so unapologetically loony.

Since the trailers for “Unknown” started to appear, people have been comparing it to Liam Neeson’s breakthrough action role from a few years ago, “Taken.”  The thing is, “Unknown” really isn’t that type of movie.  It’s more of a paranoid thriller where the hero is made to feel like he might be crazy, and the audience is forced to guess what is or isn’t true, and because it’s Collet-Serra directing, it is also implausible and ridiculous to the point of being genuinely entertaining.  It is so wildly silly that I found myself laughing through most of it.

And I think that’s actually a recommendation.

I am delighted to see that “Unknown” is based on a novel.  I’m assuming it was written in crayons held in the feet of a crazy man whose hands were restrained by the straightjacket, but Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s script manages to maintain every bit of “Are you KIDDING?” and play it all with a deadly straight face.  Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, arriving in Berlin with his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) for a biotech conference.  As they’re about to check into the hotel, Harris realizes he left his briefcase at the airport, and he hops in a cab driven by Gina (Diane Kruger) to race back and get it.  There’s an accident on the way, though, and the cab ends up in the river.  Gina saves him, but his heart has stopped and it takes almost four minutes to get it started again.  By that point, he’s in a coma that lasts for four days.

When he finally wakes up and heads back to the hotel to tell his wife what has happened, she claims not to recognize him.  Even worse, there’s Another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) with her, and no one seems to believe Neeson when he says who he is.  That sets him off on a series of fistfights, car chases, and growled exchanges of exposition, and he ends up teamed with the only two people who believe him, a former East German Secret Police officer named Ernst Jurgen (the great Bruno Ganz) and Gina, the illegal-immigrant-waitress-stunt-driver-Olympic-swimmer who saved his life.  There’s a lot of running and shooting and near-death escapes, and by the time it’s revealed what really went down and who really is Dr. Martin Harris, it is just plain funny.

There’s a real energy to the way Collet-Serra shot the film, and Neeson is good in it, even if I feel like this newfound action-hero thing doesn’t really fit him very well.  If I’m not mistaken, Neeson is 8’9″ tall, and he moves like many very tall men do, like he’s somewhat stiff.  He certainly looks like he could pick you up and shake you to death, but I have trouble with some of the aspects of who he’s playing here.  I’m not sure I buy Neeson as this particular character in every moment.  Still, that voice of his is so great, and the sheer absurdity of the scale difference between him and every non-giant human being in the movie is a nonstop visual gag that keeps on delivering all the way through.

The women in Dr. Martin’s life give very different performances.  January Jones has earned some real acclaim as Betty Draper on “Mad Men,” and I think there was a brilliance to casting her as a dead-eyed zombie.  The problem is, when you cast her as anything else, she brings every bit of that dead-eyed zombie to the role, and so you get a performance like this, where I don’t buy anything she does.  She is unconvincing as a doctor’s happy wife, she is unconvincing as the character she is eventually revealed to be, and she is unconvincing as someone who is fully awake and not tranquilized.  She does, however, feature in the single funniest shot in the movie, so I will at least grant her that.  Diane Kruger, on the other hand, seems to have really been re-energized by her appearance in “Inglorious Basterds,” and while she’s wrasslin’ with the same ridiculous script that Jones is, at least Kruger seems to be enjoying herself.  Both women look preposterous when standing next to all six stories of Neeson.  There is a love scene in a shower with Jones that looks more like a molestation, and at one point, he puts his hand on the side of Kruger’s face and his thumb appears to be the size of her entire head.

Some of the supporting cast really has fun with their time onscreen, like Bruno Ganz, who sounds more like a Muppet than ever before, like age is squeezing his vocal cords into the shape of Dave Goelz.  Frank Langella telegraphs his role in things from the first time you hear him on the phone, but that oozing unctuous charm of his is exactly the reason you hire him.  I genuinely enjoyed every moment either of those guys was onscreen, and again… it just looks like they knew what they were in, and they decided to enjoy it.

Ultimately, that’s what I like about Collet-Serra.  He doesn’t seem to take any of this terribly seriously.  That’s not to say his work is half-assed or phoned in, though.  The film is slick, and it moves non-stop, but there’s a lightness of tone, a smirk buried in the suspense, that makes me forgive his movies their most ludicrous excesses.  If this guy ever does get serious, I have a feeling he’s got greatness lurking in him.  For now, though, he makes high-gloss trash with an abandon that is too much fun to resist.

“Unknown” opens everywhere today.