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Movie Review

Unknown

Mistaken identity and ‘Taken’ similarity

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / February 18, 2011

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Why do people keep stealing Liam Neeson’s stuff? The last time a man he played was in Europe, it was to get his teenage daughter back from sex traffickers in Paris. A lot of cars were crashed and even more bones were broken. The occasion was preposterous. It’s no less so this time. Now someone has stolen his identity. But while “Unknown,’’ which opens today, taps the same ludicrous action vein as “Taken,’’ it’s a good deal more visually coherent and less demanding on Neeson and his stunt doubles.

He plays Dr. Martin Harris, an American who has just arrived in Berlin to present at a biotechnology summit. The minute he and his pretty, young wife, Liz (January Jones), arrive at their hotel, he hops into another cab to fetch a briefcase he left at the airport. Oops. Some slickly choreographed highway mayhem sparked by a runaway fridge puts him in a four-day coma. When he awakens, the movie has a nifty twist on the usual lost-memory plot. He knows exactly who he is. (I’m the killing machine from “Taken’’!) It’s his life that appears to have forgotten him.

Martin leaves the hospital for the hotel. He lost his passport in the accident, but he’s certain he can find Liz and/or a colleague who can straighten out this mess. She tells him she’s already married to a Dr. Martin Harris. This guy looks like Aidan Quinn. In some of the funnier writing I’ve seen in one of these movies, after Quinn’s character tells Martin to get lost, Martin actually checks himself back into the hospital.

Neeson is much better suited to the loneliness and self-doubt of Martin’s crisis than he was for the thuggery of the previous movie. The creases in his giant face always seem to harbor sadness, stress, and doubt. You want to pull up a stepladder and climb it in order to give him a hug. In “Taken,’’ his washed-up Secret Service agent all too easily turned into a weapon of mass destruction. He simmers in “Unknown’’ without boiling over.

He gets good support work from Berlin, which here is a land of ashen landscapes and lethal driving. As if on cue, the film coughs up Bruno Ganz as the former Secret Police agent Martin hires to get to the bottom of his mystery. Ganz is on hand to remind us that what’s happening to Martin might be part of the modern German condition: We’re a truly forgetful people, he says, more or less. So, really, Martin is just in a “when in Rome’’ situation.

There’s also both the lovely Diane Kruger, as a Bosnian cabbie who runs around the city helping Martin while resisting the urge to get that stepladder, and Frank Langella in a fedora. Without the very good writing of “Mad Men’’ to bring out her cunning, Jones is ornamental, someone who looks good in oversaturated flashbacks pressed up against a shower door. Without the show, in “Unknown’’ she’s Claire Danes in a Grace Kelly look-alike contest.

She looks especially silly come the big reveal that involves a lot of talking, a big bang, and a big conspiracy. The movie is based on a French novel, “Out of My Head’’ by Didier van Cauwelaert, and co-produced by Joel Silver, who runs a classy ship compared to the gleeful trash written and produced by Luc Besson, who brought us “Taken.’’ “Unknown’’ gives us the director Jaume Collet-Serra who works with the chilly polish of some Roman Polanski thrillers — that barreling fridge sums up the movie’s style.

Accordingly, the movie itself might be a work of mistaken identity. I saw “Unknown’’ with an entourage whose average age was about 70. They loved it, although one of them kept calling it “The Bond Ultimatum.’’ Which sounds about right.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

Sexy cool

Sexy cool

January Jones takes her image as a mysterious beauty from "Mad Men" to "X-Men."

UNKNOWN

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Written by: Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, adapted from the novel “Out of My Head’’ by Didier van Cauwelaert

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, and Frank Langella

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 113 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (some intense, ridiculous sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content, also ridiculous)

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