Unknown (2011) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated PG-13 for violence, language and brief sexual content
Running time: 113 min.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay: Oliver Butcher, Steven Cornwell
Review published August 17, 2011
Liam Neeson (Dawn Treader, Prince Caspian) stars as Dr. Martin Harris, who has traveled to Germany for a presentation at an important biotech industry conference and gets into a near-fatal car accident that results in him going into a coma for a few days, and coming out with a mental block as to who he is and where he comes from. When he awakens, he finds that his young, lovely wife Elizabeth (Jones, Pirate Radio) denies having any knowledge of who he is, and worse, there is another man (Quinn, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) going by the identity he knows is him but can't prove it, especially when his briefcase (which contains his passport) goes missing. Dr. Harris enlists the services of Ernst Jurgen (Ganz, Youth Without Youth), a former Stasi agent, and Gina (Kruger, Book of Secrets), a Bosnian refugee cab driver who saved his life in the accident, to try to crack the mystery of his identity and who the people are who no longer seem to know him.
Unknown is an old-school Hitchcockian psychological thriller, also cribbing a bit from The Bourne Identity with its Berlin locales and amnesia angle, which translates to a rather derivative piece to those who have seen older, better thrillers, but it's nifty enough in its twists and turns for those who enjoy the traditionally classy mysteries of yesteryear. Some may mistake the film to a similar one in Neeson's filmography, 2008's financially successful Taken, but this is the superior film in terms of its story, pace, and ability to generate suspense through its script by Oliver Butcher (Dr. Jekyll & Ms. Hyde) and Steven Cornwell, based on the French novel, "Out of My Head" by Didier Van Cauwelaert. It's preposterous once you look back and connect all of the implausible dots, but like all good thrillers, it keeps you riveted while you watch, and so long as it doesn't go into a free-fall when the cards are laid on the table, it's a reasonably good time.
Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax, Orphan) does a fine job keeping it together and building good momentum, tension and suspense. Chase scenes do deliver excitement, while fight scenes are tightly edited. The film is also gorgeously photographed by cinematographer by Flavio Labiano (Goal II, Timecrimes), with a magical sense of light and dark that sets the proper mood throughout. Sunny days and icy nights in Berlin have rarely looked better.
The downside of the film is in the casting, with hulking Liam Neeson making for an awkward and less-than-charismatic everyman American (with a rather odd accent), while a large supporting role for cold and distant January Jones sees her labor to look credible as more than just a pretty face to put in promotional material -- despite some physical similarities, she's a far cry from Grace Kelly. The 59-year-old Neeson, while not looking too close to his age, is still nearly twice the age of the woman playing his wife, and just too different in demeanor and personality to buy into the relationship fully (there is a plausible reason for this, but it's still not a good on-screen match). Diane Kruger and an always enjoyable Bruno Ganz fill their roles well, though Frank Langella (The Box, Frost/Nixon) has played the heavy far too many times to ever buy his character as who he purports to be for even a moment.
Perhaps too slight for a big screen release, this should find a comfortable home on video or cable, where such sophisticated escapist pleasures should meet well for audiences looking for a familiar film done well.
©2011 Vince Leo