The trajectory of Liam Neeson’s career in the post-Taken era has been a fascinating one to witness. Neeson first made his way onto the audience’s radar in the ‘90s thanks to his highly acclaimed role as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s beloved masterpiece, Schindler’s List, and Neeson followed up his remarkable breakout turn with many standout roles in arthouse projects from notable auteurs. However, by the mid-21st Century, this rapid rise seemed to be falling short. Neeson is now known as an action star and has appeared in many films of the genre that may seem like they all blend into one. However, the 2011 action-thriller, Unkown, walks a different path.
Neeson’s leading roles began to shrink as he grew older, and although he took part in major projects like Gangs of New York and Kingdom of Heaven, it was always in minor parts. Some of Neeson’s best work in films like Kinsey and Breakfast on Pluto was unfortunately underseen. Then came Taken in 2008. There were few expectations for the revenge action-thriller, but the surprise hit caught on and announced the former award-friendly actor as the action hero of an entire generation. Compared to the other action stars of the time, Neeson’s gruff and grizzled perspective was a breath of fresh air that seemed to fill the void of what John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Harrison Ford did in their later years. Neeson generally appears in at least one action film of this type every year, and he’s frequently associated with director Jaume Collet-Serra. Collet-Serra’s work tends to embrace elements of straight-faced camp with low-scale action, and he directed Neeson in Non-Stop, Run All Night, and The Commuter.
However, Neeson and Collet-Serra began their successful series of collaborations with a film that now feels like a novelty. Unknown lacked the big ending set piece of Non-Stop, eccentric villains of Run All Night, or the “wink at the camera” type humor of The Commuter. It was just as ridiculous as any other Neeson vehicle, but Unknown seemed more Hitchcockian with its ambiguous morality and frequent twists and turns.
Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, a biotechnology research professor who attends a summit in Berlin with his wife, Liz (January Jones). Harris is involved in a near-fatal car accident that puts him in a four-day coma, but when he awakens he doesn’t find his loving bride at his side. Liz claims that her husband is another man entirely (Aidan Quinn); she’s never seen Harris before and doesn’t recognize him.
The “case of mistaken identity” storyline feels very Hitchcockian, and Neeson is the type of sensitive actor that can make the scenes of family strife compelling in their own right, and not just a precursor to a series of shoot ‘em ups. What’s notable isn’t the premise itself, but what the film doesn’t reveal. Harris isn’t a secret agent with a Bourne-style past, nor does he reveal himself to be a former military serviceman who is unexpectedly adept at kicking ass. He’s simply a normal man victimized by a conspiracy and someone who must use practical problem-solving techniques to uncover the truth.
Neeson’s later work grew less original because, for the most part, you know what you’re going to get from Neeson’s character arc pretty early on. Unknown is different in that it actually embraces the dramatic consequences of the premise. Here is a character that was once successful and relatively happy, and an unexpected event makes him a stranger in his own body. Harris can’t trust anyone, especially not himself, but he’s still heartbroken by the images of happy family vacations that now seem alien to him.
It’s here where Neeson’s dramatic experience really benefits the film because what would be “filler” in a Jason Statham or Mark Wahlberg thriller is actually the core text of Unknown. Harris needs time to adjust to his own reality, and though the eventual twists ultimately move the film in a pulpier direction, they help form an actual character arc. Harris realizes he shouldn’t have been content with the man he once was, as he was involved in an illicit assassination plot. He now seeks redemption for a task he has no memory of.
It’s also remarkable how many other Neeson film hallmarks are absent from Unknown. He works alongside a much younger female accomplice, Gina (Diane Kruger), but she doesn’t end up becoming his love interest. Harris faces off with the perpetrators of the conspiracy at the end climax, and he gets his ass handed to him. Ultimately, while he’s learned details of how the covert criminal conspiracy has been secretly impacting world politics, it’s not that he who single-handedly takes them down. His survival is his victory; now he must embark on the even more challenging task of returning to a normal life while burdened with this knowledge.
Neeson continues to hallmark the “one last mission” aging veteran premise (this year alone he’ll star in Blacklight and Memory) and Collet-Serra continues to rise as a blockbuster filmmaker with Jungle Cruise and this summer’s Black Adam. A film like Unknown, a mid-budget mystery for adult audiences, is the type of film that seems to be disappearing or dropped on a streaming service with little notice. Neeson and Collet-Serra, thankfully, have the clout to get a film like Unknown to an audience and, in retrospect, a hidden gem within both of their filmographies.