The cheat code is a tradition almost as old as video games themselves. Whether or not one chooses to use them is another matter, but they do exist, and by their very definition they make the game easier to beat (especially when they unlock “God mode”).
In recent years it has become apparent that cheat codes have taken on a life beyond their origin in video games. Movie casting directors now have one of their own: if you cast Liam Neeson in a movie, it will be awesome.
Very light spoilers ahead.
Liam Neeson has certainly had some iconic roles over the course of his career; it’s not as though he’s spent the last 20 years phoning it in. The last few years of his career, though, have revealed the wonderfully pleasant surprise that if you have a movie where the male lead needs to kill a lot of people very forcefully, Liam Neeson will be the perfect guarantor of that movie’s stupidity, redundancy, or any of its various and sundry other flaws being rendered completely irrelevant. Unknown is but the latest example of this trend.
Only about the first twenty minutes can be recapped without a spoiler alert, but suffice to say Unknown begins with married American couple Liam Neeson and January Jones arriving in Berlin, and when they reach their hotel, Liam Neeson realizes he’s left something at the airport. On his way back to retrieve it, his cab (driven by Diane Kruger; any city where someone who once played Helen of Troy, no matter how bad the movie was, is driving a cab has me wanting to hop a plane and start urgently hailing taxis) gets into a nasty accident. Diane Kruger impressively hauls Liam Neeson out of the wreck of the cab. Liam Neeson’s doctor at the hospital, in a bit of a red herring, tells him he has amnesia; when Liam Neeson remembers that January Jones is probably freaking out waiting for him at the hotel, he hurries over…only to find that no one seems to remember who Liam Neeson is. Twist! The rest of the picture is given over to Liam Neeson figuring out what the hell is going on, with occasional pit stops to kill people and get in car chases.
The filmmaking craft employed here is unremarkable put perfectly solid, overseen by commercial/music video director Jaume Collet-Serra. The camerawork (by Flaviano Labiano) is downright stylish in places—most notably in a nightclub scene all in reds and blues scored to a remix of New Order’s “Blue Monday”—and the editing is solid, building suspense nicely (though, oddly, it’s the editing that inadvertently reveals that Something Is Not Right in one scene toward the end of the second act) and aptly showcasing some well-staged car stunts.
The writing is what requires Unknown to use the Liam Neeson cheat code. The script, by veterans Oliver Butcher and Steven Cornwell (working from a novel called Out of My Head by Didier von Cauwelaert) tries to find ways to avoid simply diagramatically progressing from thriller beat to thriller beat, but is still beholden to those beats, many of which are borrowed wholesale from other movies. The biggies are Roman Polanski’s Harrison Ford movie Frantic, the Bourne movies, and in a relatively novel bit of pastiche, the sublime German surveillance drama The Lives of Others, with Bruno Ganz giving an absolutely tremendous supporting performance as an aging, still sharp-as-a-tack ex-Stasi agent, whose cynicism can be dented by a good, sufficiently romantic cause. The mere act of Liam Neeson walking through his door is that very thing: “Ah, Liam Neeson! You’re awesome! Wie geht es Ihnen? Was möchten sie?”
So, even if the revelation of what’s actually going on is kind of dumb—which it is—Unknown works perfectly well on the level of being a picture in which bad people stupidly antagonize Liam Neeson and Liam Neeson violently educates them in the error of their ways. There are actually longish stretches of the movie where no bad guys are being killed by Liam Neeson (and, mild spoiler alert, it turns out that Diane Kruger is quite a competent cohort in this regard) but Liam Neeson’s firm resolve carries us through those stretches.
While in a perfect world a gamer needn’t use cheat codes to beat a video game, a game won through the use of cheat codes is nonetheless won. I think I keep coming back to this metaphor because if Unknown were a game, I’d play it with no complaints whatsoever, but as a movie I can’t avoid two points: it’s teetering right on the brink of being too dumb even for a bit of escapist action, and without Liam Neeson this picture is nowhere near as good. But since the first point is up for debate, and since Liam Neeson most assuredly is in this movie, Unknown isn’t bad at all for what it is.
And the next-to-last scene explains why I’m writing about this movie on a science fiction/fantasy website, in case you were wondering.