This time of year is said to be the dumping ground of random movie projects gone awry, but an awful Liam Neeson thriller is becoming an annual winter event, as if there were some method or system behind it.
It's difficult to believe, but Neeson's best role since “Kinsey” in 2004 was as the father in “Fallout 3,” a video game from 2008. (There was the respectable “Seraphim Falls” in 2006, but alas, “Fallout 3” is much better known.) Yes, the man tragically lost his wife in 2009, but the list is longer than any conceivable grieving period. Little-seen duds such as “The Other Man” (2009) and “After.Life” (2010) blur with money grabs like the “Narnia” series and “Clash of the Titans.” The last three years have provided a trilogy of terrible thrillers, including “Taken” (2009), “Chloe” (2010) and now “Unknown,” about a guy fighting to prove his identity. It says a lot about the state of Neeson's career that “Unknown” isn't his worst recent work, and yet is an unbelievably wretched hack job nonetheless.
First of all, what a dumb title. Imagine going to the local theater and checking in on Facebook and typing “Unknown” as the movie you're watching. Will your friends assume you're drunk and don't know what you've stumbled into? Perhaps the film's producers, in a similar state, took a look at the working title of the screenplay and decided “Hey, that works.”
At any rate, it doesn't make much sense given the plot. Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris — or at least someone who vigorously insists he's Dr. Martin Harris, although most of the other characters just as vehemently deny this. Harris is on the way to a bio-medical engineering symposium in Berlin when his taxi crashes. Waking from a coma, he must prove, even to his wife, that he is who he says he is. This mostly consists of Neeson marching around the city trying to look very determined.
Eventually he's chased around town by some grave men in black fatigues (we know how serious they are by the Bluetooth headsets) and gains the aid of a pretty, free-spirited young waif (Diane Kruger) who has a shady past of her own and helps him in his odyssey, which includes car chases, hand-to-hand combat and somber meetings with secret agents. The last time you saw all this transpire it was called “The Bourne Identity.”
You can call this version “The Mistaken Identity.” Director Juame Collet-Serra (“Orphan”) doesn't come up with much that qualifies as suspense, so he compensates by whipping the camera to and fro, and when that fails resorts to brief flashbacks filmed in supersaturated color to demonstrate Neeson's distressed mind. At one point he actually employs the tilting camera angle to signify extreme confusion. Did no one tell him about the dream sequence with the wavy lines going across the screen? You can save yourself the ticket price and re-enact the movie's wittiest scene by getting a friend to shout with you in unison, “No, I'm Martin Harris!” It's not good when your thriller recalls a memorable “Seinfeld” episode.
If it doesn't sound like “Unknown” could get much worse, know that it stars January Jones, from “Mad Men,” as Neeson's wife, in a role that requires her to do more than stand around looking pretty. Walking naturally is a challenge. Judging from “Unknown,” her future directors would do well not to instruct the pull-string actress to look confused. She looks confused already, and so doubling up like she does in this movie causes her to give the same expression as a puppy when you blow the special whistle.
Like all forms of entertainment, the worst performer of the bunch tends to lower the rest to her level. Neeson, as ageless and sturdy-looking today as he was in such classics as “Rob Roy,” usually can deliver his lines solidly even in the worst movies. But here he's robotic and forced, almost as embarrassing as Jones. The only actor who rises above the material is veteran Bruno Ganz (who gave the best Hitler portrayal of all time in “Downfall”), as an ex-Stasi officer who Neeson hires. Ganz is great but not given nearly enough to do, and eventually his character is sabotaged by the movie's stupidity. It's a sad moment because he'd provided all the enjoyment up to that point. None follows. (PG-13) 113 min. S