John Wayne wore cowboy drag, Mel Gibson's mullet was his tipoff, but the most recognizable action hero signature these days is Liam Neeson's nose.
It is a magnificent nose, masculine to the brink of sneezing testosterone, a flesh-and-cartilage battering ram constantly jammed into deadly affairs and never backing down. Neeson's nose even has its own worry furrow, a separate extension of the brow wrinkles flexed by ordinary heroes in tight spots. His eyes, typically the windows to an actor's soul, retreat to narrow slits in deference to Neeson's macho muzzle.
The actor's proboscis has much to probe in Unknown, a paranoia thriller that, like Neeson's 2009 hit Taken, is better than the timing of its release suggests. Theaters in February are usually dumping grounds for studios while the Oscars game plays out. Like Taken, which this film faintly echoes, Unknown may be Hollywood's biggest hit of 2011 until the real blockbusters are unleashed.
If this movie does display box office legs, credit is due to Neeson's nose.
Unknown casts Neeson as Dr. Martin Harris, a biotech expert visiting Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) to attend an eco-science summit. Arriving at their hotel, Martin realizes he left an important briefcase at the airport. He leaves Liz and hops into a taxi that accidentally plunges off a bridge. Martin gets conked on the forehead, knocking him unconscious (if his nose hit the window, there wouldn't be a problem).
Rescued by the cabbie Gina (Diane Kruger), Martin spends four days in a coma, awakening to learn that Liz isn't looking for him. He soon learns why: Liz is schmoozing at the conference with another man (Aidan Quinn) who by all evidence is Dr. Martin Harris. Website bios have been altered, colleagues confirm the imposter, and Martin is left to wonder if he's really who he thinks he is, or just plain crazy.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra does a dandy job setting up the "who" and "what" of this evolving mystery, concocting a preposterously satisfying "why" in the final minutes. There are three crackerjack sequences of vehicular mayhem, a nicely Hitchcockian murder attempt in a hospital, and several nifty payback kills tying loose ends together. Whatever Unknown lacks in logic — the Jonas Salk of corn is a pivotal figure — it camouflages with muscular entertainment.
Unknown also features juicy supporting roles for Bruno Ganz as a former East Germany secret policeman, and Frank Langella as Martin's colleague arriving to see how he can help. Both actors understand the importance of underplaying roles that read like arch characters in the script. No matter how unbelievable things get in Unknown, the actors' gravitas keeps things grounded.
Above all, there's Neeson and his nose, an action team so formidable that Chuck Norris might consider plastic surgery. Unknown is finely tuned pulp filmmaking, a dumb movie with a smart veneer, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.