Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Liam Neeson began his best action-movie collaboration with the Hitchcockian Unknown

Illustration for article titled Liam Neeson began his best action-movie collaboration with the Hitchcockian iUnknown/i
Screenshot: Unknown

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: A new Liam Neeson potboiler is headed for theaters, so we’re singling out the best movies of the star’s aging ass-kicker renaissance (excepting The Grey, which we’ve already covered for a past Watch This series).

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Unknown (2011)

Unknown, Liam Neeson’s first film with pulp director Jaume Collet-Serra, capitalized on his post-Taken reputation as a middle-aged ass-kicker (which in turn was a capitalization on his career-long tendency to play imposing mentor-warrior figures). But while the usual trailer footage of car chases and hand-to-hand combat does indeed appear in the actual movie, it’s not principally an action picture. Rather than tracing over Taken, Unknown sets the template for Neeson’s parallel series of non-sequelized Collet-Serra collaborations, which often riff on Hitchcockian wrong-man-wrong-time thrillers and pulpy locked-room mysteries.

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Their first film together might be their least-heralded even by their fans—a somewhat baffling reaction to a stylish catch-it-on-cable thriller with an irresistible hook: Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris (emphasis on “doctor” frequently his), a scientist attending a conference in Berlin who gets into a bad car crash, goes into a four-day coma, and emerges to find that someone else has claimed his identity. When his wife Liz (January Jones) introduces a replacement Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) as her husband, the Neeson version wonders if he’s going crazy. It’s the type of overelaborate gaslighting that cuts through contemporary overuse of the term. The movie also taps into the universal nightmare of being seamlessly replaced by Aidan Quinn. (He’s perfectly cast as a guy who might be casually mistaken for Liam Neeson but might also infuriate the genuine article with the comparison.)

Neeson works well in this context, similar to how Cary Grant works in North By Northwest. In that Hitchcock adventure, Grant’s movie-star charm created a bridge between his vulnerability (as a “regular” guy who happens to look like Cary Grant) and his ability to think on his feet. Unknown, being a 2010s thriller, doesn’t require Neeson to be a debonair romantic lead. But he’s believable on either side of his inevitable transformation from the picture of a put-together husband to a harried man of action. Collet-Serra understands what that famous phone call scene from Taken proved: that Neeson’s superpower is righteous agitation. In his later-period thrillers and action movies, he’s like a Hulk who spends his entire metamorphosis elucidating exactly why he’s so angry.

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Unlike the filmmakers behind the Taken series, Collet-Serra also realizes that Neeson is a strong enough presence that he doesn’t actually need fear-mongering, manipulative family endangerment to get him properly worked up. Unknown engages in manipulations of its own, many of them so patently absurd that they employ actors like Neeson, Bruno Ganz, Diane Kruger, and Frank Langella to project a few moments of human dimension onto Collet-Sera’s slick surfaces. Though it doesn’t reach peak Neeson Anguish, the movie does briefly introduce the sense of guilt that goes on to define several more Neeson/Collet-Sera collaborations. (He certainly makes a more palatable Catholic action hero than Mel Gibson.) In a movie about shifting, stolen, and fabricated identities, Neeson quietly undermines the righteousness that redefined him as an older movie star. Then, as per genre requirements, he indulges it with the aforementioned combat. Unknown clarifies the Neeson paradox: Even when he’s positioned as the wrong man, he’s also right on.

Availability: Appropriately enough, Unknown is currently streaming on TNT and TBS for cable subscribers. It’s available to rent or purchase digitally from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, Redbox, DirectTV, and VUDU.

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Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!

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