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Riding the B Train

by Ross Douthat

In their quest to transform the art of movie hitmaking into something like a science, the major Hollywood studios pay research firms to “track” their films before they open — cold-calling a sample of Americans every week and asking them which movies they’re aware are opening, and which films they’re interested in paying to go see. These numbers are to the movie business what polling is to horse-race politics: They set expectations, establish narratives, and tell the studios how effectively (or ineffectively) their messaging is getting out.

But like presidential exit polls, these surveys have their limits, and they have particular trouble with what you might call the black swans of the Hollywood box office: the mysteries of fanboy buzz, the impact of art-house word-of-mouth — and now the distinctive charms of Liam Neeson, action hero.

Neeson isn’t the first master thespian to develop a sideline in slam-bang B movies, but with 2009’s kidnapping melodrama Taken and this winter’s amnesia melodrama Unknown (sandwiched around a machine-gun-toting turn in last year’s The A-Team), he’s one of the oldest Oscar nominees to go slumming in Jason Statham territory. Pushing 60, all crags and gravitas, Neeson looks ready to spend a comfortable few decades playing aging kings and wise old mentors, with the occasional stentorian voice-over thrown in to pay the bills. Instead, he’s getting in car chases, growling out one-liners (“I didn’t forget everything — I remember how to kill you”), and dispatching bad guys with the facility of an action hero half his age.

And the public loves him for it, well beyond the expectations of the tracking business. Hollywood’s crack researchers had Unknown losing its opening weekend to the weightless sci-fi “epic” I Am Number Four, a glossy attempt to kick-start a teen franchise and make a matinee idol out of its star, the buff and vacant Alex Pettyfer. But the tracking numbers were dead wrong: Neeson’s crags trumped Pettyfer’s pecs, and it was older women (not your typical action-movie crowd, to put it mildly) who contributed an outsize share of Unknown’s take.

The movie they paid to see isn’t particularly good, but that isn’t really the point. The quality of plot and dialogue aside, there’s a distinctive, high-lowbrow thrill that comes with watching a man who’s played Oskar Schindler and Alfred Kinsey tangle with goons in the back alleys of European capitals. Like the $100 million–grossing Taken before it, Unknown demonstrates that with the right casting, a strictly mediocre film can still be an awful lot of fun.

Taken was a completely straight-ahead exercise in American wish-fulfillment, in which Neeson’s ex-CIA dad grimly fought his way through corrupt Parisians and sinister Arabs to rescue his gorgeous daughter from white slavery. Unknown is a bit more complicated: This time, Neeson is an American academic who gets in a car crash while attending a Berlin biotechnology conference and wakes up to find that nobody recognizes or remembers him, and that his place and wife (January Jones) have been usurped by a lookalike (Aidan Quinn). But the Hitchcockian pretensions and the inevitable plot twist — which is ripped off, shamelessly, from a bigger-budget action franchise that shall remain anonymous — is secondary to the main attraction, which is Neeson’s character’s gradually dawning realization that only fists and gunplay are going to restore the life that’s been stripped away from him.

He isn’t the only one having fun slumming. Jones’s and Quinn’s characters are ciphers by design, but Unknown imports the great German actor Bruno Ganz (best known to American audiences as the ranting Hitler in Downfall, and in the million YouTube parodies it spawned) to play an ex-Stasi man turned private investigator whom Neeson turns to for assistance. The movie’s best scene by far is the encounter between Ganz’s crotchety P.I. and the silky-smooth Frank Langella, who cameos as a dubious academic colleague (or is he?) of Neeson’s amnesiac hero. It’s a small, restrained clinic in how good actors can elevate essentially meaningless material into something riveting, and even faintly tragic.

The only problem with highbrow turns in lowbrow entertainments is that their box-office success can make them an addiction, and a trap. Unknown’s boffo opening weekend probably means that there will be more fisticuffs, more grim-faced Americans abroad, and more one-word titles in Liam Neeson’s future. I’m enjoying this phase of his career, and I don’t begrudge him the desire to go a little further down the road to Rambo-dom. But I hope he keeps his eyes open for the signpost marking the place where a self-respecting actor should take stock, and turn back: This way lies the career of Nicolas Cage.

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