Comparisons to “Taken” and “The Bourne Identity” appear to be inevitable when talking about Jaume Collet-Serra’s new action thriller “Unknown”, starring Liam Neeson, but I’ll try to keep that talk to a minimum. The “Taken” reference feels lazy, or at least too easy, and the only real connection between the two films is that both prominently feature Liam Neeson kicking the crap out of people. The “Bourne” comparison is a little more appropriate as both revolve around memory loss, a shadowy past, and a helpful, not to mention beautiful, stranger, as well kicking the crap out of people. “Unknown” isn’t a great movie, nor is it terribly original, and it wants to be much more important and deep than it is. What it is, is a decent suspense film that morphs into an action vehicle along the way.
Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson), a renowned botanist, and his wife Liz (January Jones), are on their way to a biotech conference in Berlin. When they get to the hotel, Martin realizes he forgot his briefcase, and hops a cab back to the airport. En route, the taxi, driven by Gina (Diane Kruger sporting a weird little Jedi dread), careens off a bridge, plummeting into an icy river. Martin is knocked unconscious in the crash, and Gina saves him from drowning before skulking off because she’s an illegal immigrant and is driving the cab on the sly. Martin wakes up after four days in a coma, his memory still fractured and in pieces, wondering why hasn’t his wife been looking for him. When he tracks her down at a black-tie party for the conference, she doesn’t recognize him, and another man (Aiden Quinn) claims that he is Dr. Martin Harris, and he has the ID, family photos, and even a faculty page on a university website to prove it.
Martin attempts to retrace his steps and put the puzzle of his life together. He’s pretty sure he knows who he is, but how can he prove it? He’s also fairly certain that he’s being followed through the streets and subways of Berlin. But are these feelings of persecution simply the lingering effects of massive head trauma and he is just being paranoid? “Unknown” takes great pains to let you know that dealing with brain injuries is an inexact science, so you, like Martin, are left wondering if he is simply going insane, or if something more sinister is going on. You don’t care all that much, but it’s enough to keep you interested for the time being.
Just when Martin (and by extension you) is almost convinced that he is crazy, someone tries to kill him. After this moment in “Unknown” the story veers dangerously close to “Bourne” territory for a while as Martin tries to figure out why people want to kill him? Why the hell would someone want to steal the identity of botanist anyway? Is Liz being held captive, or is she in on the whole thing? And while Martin scrounges for answers, with the help of Gina and Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of the East German secret police who openly longs for the “good old days” of the Cold War, mysterious strangers are all up in his business, and the film shifts from suspense into a more action centered state. More than the sudden, un-prefaced twists many films like this rely on, “Unknown” has two main distinct shifts in the narrative, and this is the first. These changes in direction work (to a degree) where an abrupt “a ha” moment wouldn’t succeed. Not only are they built up to, but the story continues after they occur, giving you time to digest and accept them. “Unknown” relies on the story rather than shocking revelations that come out of nowhere.
On a very, very surface level, “Unknown” toys with the question of what makes a person, of what makes you you? Are you what you think you are, what people tell you that you are, or are you truly defined by your actions and the decisions you make? Is what you do more important than everything else in defining who you are? When I say “Unknown” deals with these topics in a “very surface” way, I mean that just these few sentences are more in depth than the film deals with them. “Unknown” broaches these subjects like a bored kitten idly batting around a ball of yarn on a lazy summer afternoon, and quickly loses interest.
There is an issue surrounding “Unknown” that has come up a couple of times lately, and that is trailers and TV spots for movies that give away key plot points and things that are integral to the story. This comes up every few years (remember when the ads for “Castaway” showed Tom Hanks coming home after escaping from the island? Ruined the whole movie because you never wondered if he would get home). It happened recently with “The Eagle”, and rears it’s ugly head again with “Unknown”. In case you haven’t paid much attention to the marketing material, I won’t say specifically what the commercials give away, but they betray the final shift, the thing that the entire movie builds towards. You’d have probably guessed what’s coming anyway, “Unknown” doesn’t win any points for originality or surprise, but it would’ve been nice to not have it ruined before you even sat down in the theater. That’s my tirade for the day. Sorry for the interruption. Here’s a picture of Liam Neeson with a bloody face to make up for it.
“Unknown” is far from perfect, and ultimately pretty empty, but if you’re in the mood to for a moderately suspenseful spy thriller, coupled with a couple of decent car chases, fight scenes, and one of the most unnecessary of unnecessary explosions in recent memory (along with “The Mechanic” it’s one of the best uses of an unnecessary explosion that I’ve seen lately), then give it a chance. Imagine “Taken” or “The Bourne Identity” lite. Don’t think about it too hard and “Unknown” is an enjoyable enough movie.
Jaume Collet-Serra (director)/Oliver Butcher (writer)/Stephen Cornwell (writer)/Didier Van Cauwelaert (novel—“Out of My Head”)
CAST: Liam Neeson…Dr. Martin Harris
January Jones…Liz Harris
Aiden Quinn…Dr. Martin Harris 2
Bruno Ganz…Ernst Jurgen
Frank Langella…Rodney Cole