© 2011 Ray Wong
Liam Neeson has been carving a niche lately as the new sensitive action hero, what with his turns in Taken, The A-Team and Clash of the Titans. His latest effort, Unknown, follows the same path.
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrives in Berlin for an international Botanist convention hosted by Dr. Bressler (Sebastian Koch) and Prince Shada (Mido Hamada). However, upon arrival, Harris discovers he's left an important briefcase at the airport. While heading back in a taxi, he gets into an accident that puts him in a coma for four days.
When he awakens, he can't remember much: he has only pieces of fragmented memories. One thing for sure, though, is that he's Martin Harris, an American stranded in Berlin without any identification. When he returns to the hotel, he's shocked that his wife doesn't recognize him. Worse, another man claims to be him. He's convinced that there's a conspiracy and his wife is in danger when he's being followed by a killer.
He traces his steps back to the accident and finds the driver Gina (Diane Kruger), who reluctantly agrees to help him find the truth in exchange for money. Soon, the killers are hot on their trails. Meanwhile, Harris begins to piece everything together and realizes he is involved in something bigger and more sinister than he ever imagined.
Liam Neeson (Clash of the Titans) is excellent as Martin Harris. He certainly looks and acts the part as the botanist. But when his true identity is revealed, we understand that it's, in fact, perfect casting. Neeson has the right mix of sensitivity and hardness to play the part well. However, this is essentially the same part he played in Taken. While he's great in it, he's in danger of locking himself in as a type.
Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) plays the part of the reluctant heroine well. She's much more down to earth and understated than her flashier roles, and this fits her well. January Jones (We Are Marshall) is good as Harris's icy wife. There's not much depth in her character, however.
Aidan Quinn (Sarah's Key) does his job as the man who "impersonates" Martin Harris. There's a particular interesting scene when he and Neeson are both trying to prove they are the real Dr. Harris. Frank Langella (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) has a relatively small but pivotal role as Harris's colleague Rodney Cole. Once again, Langella plays it with cold precision. German actor Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) is in fine form as Dr. Bressler. But the standout is Bruno Ganz (The Reader) as Herr Jurgen, the former secret police who helps Harris. Ganz gave an Oscar-worthy performance in an otherwise pulpy thriller, and that is quite a feat.
Based on Didier Van Cauwelaert's novel and adapted by Oliver Butcher (Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde) and Stephen Cornwell (State of Fear), the screenplay is taut and suspenseful. The pace almost never lets up. The mystery is there right from the beginning and deepens as the plot moves along. Once in a while you get a clue but then the plot takes another turn. However, the observant audience shouldn't have a problem figuring it out.
The dialogue is standard thriller material. Nothing deep here. The fast-paced plot and slow reveal also help to mask some of the biggest plot holes, which we only get a chance to scrutinize when the movie is over. That's the problem with most thrillers for me: while it's entertaining and exciting, I can't help but feel disappointed because of the major plot holes and illogical development. I often wonder, why didn't anyone from the writers to the producers or stars ever raise any concern: "Hey, this doesn't make sense"? One major flaw in the design and construct is that there are so many ways for the killers to finish Martin Harris or Gina off, but they don't. I mean, they have no problem snapping the neck of an unfortunate nurse, but they wouldn't do the same to Harris while he's still sedated?
That said, Jaume Collet-Serra's (Orphan) direction is very good. The production is handsome. The location has its gritty, industrial feel that is perfect for the genre. The action sequences are well put together. The pace is brisk and the camerawork is workmanlike. The problem is, it reminds me so much of the Bourne series, without the breathless, shaky cinematography. It's still good, but I don't think people will be talking about this movie a year from now.
Unknown (and what a lame title!) is good entertainment. As a thriller, it gives us everything we expect and want: car chases, mystery, suspense, murders, conspiracy, and an action hero we can root for. However, as a thriller, it also has the common plot holes that hinder it from being great. While its immediate box-office reaction may be great, its long-term prospect is unknown.
Stars: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell (based on Didier Van Cauwelaert's novel Out of My Head)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequence of violence and action, brief sexual content
Running Time: 113 minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.1 out of 10