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Ann Hornaday reviews 'Unknown'

Even with one or two more wrinkles and a tad less hair, Liam Neeson evinces a mix of rock-solid strength and soulful vulnerability.
Even with one or two more wrinkles and a tad less hair, Liam Neeson evinces a mix of rock-solid strength and soulful vulnerability. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

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By Ann Hornaday
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 9:38 AM

Perhaps no one was more surprised than Liam Neeson when the thriller "Taken" became a sneaker smash-hit in 2008. Thus did the powerfully built Irishman, serious actor and heartthrob, find himself facing the unlikely second act of middle-aged action star.

"Unknown" finds Neeson settling comfortably into that mode, in a film that trades the lurid extremes of "Taken" for a more subtle, sophisticated vibe. Neeson plays horticulture professor Martin Harris, who as the film opens arrives for a biotech conference in Berlin with his wife, Liz (January Jones). When Harris inadvertently leaves his briefcase - containing his passport - on the Berlin airport curb, a series of domino-effect mishaps ensue, including a taxi ride that ends with him plunging into an icy river before being saved by the car's driver (Diane Kruger). In a coma for four days, Harris awakes with a spotty memory, and his sense of disorientation grows when his conference colleagues and even his wife don't seem to recognize him.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra from a novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert, "Unknown" owes less to Jason Bourne than to Alfred Hitchcock as it follows an amnesiac's search for the truth, which takes him through a succession of wintry Berlin streets and alternately drab and luxe neighborhoods. Although Collet-Serra perks up the procedural with some brutal fights, efficient murders and one spectacular car chase (Harris didn't learn precision reverse-gear driving in botany class), for the most part "Unknown" keeps it low-key and consistently intriguing, all the more so when Harris enlists the help of a crafty ex-Stasi officer named Jurgen (Bruno Ganz).

The weakest link in "Unknown" - okay, other than the utter preposterousness of its entire premise - is Jones, who as a modern-day version of Hitch's ice queens can't hold her own with the likes of Kim Novak, Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint. Kruger fares much better as a Bosnian emigre who has a knack for magically appearing just when Harris needs her most.

It's no surprise when the detail-oriented Jurgen twigs to what's going on far earlier than Harris or even the audience does. The final twist, when it comes, is a nifty one. And it even comes with its own handy-dandy ticking time bomb. As long as filmgoers come to "Unknown" unencumbered by a need for plausibility, this handsome, well-paced production possesses its share of twisty, visceral pleasures. And through it all, Neeson evinces the same mix of rock-solid strength and soulful vulnerability that made him such a breakout star way back in the 1980s. Even with one or two more wrinkles and a tad less hair, the kid's still got it.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some intense sequences of violence and action and brief sexual content. 113 minutes.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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