As much as I love to rip Hollywood for their annual crapfest of February releases, I have to give them credit for making an attempt at one decent movie. However, that’s as far as I’ll go – it was decent. Unknown is the latest Liam Neeson flick featuring him kicking the ass out of someone. I don’t remember when he became an action star, but we need more of this. His fight scenes never seem choreographed and he’s never asked to do stunts that would make Steven Seagal blush. The fights are short and to the point – when he hits you, you are most likely going down. Plus, he plays his roles so naturally and effortlessly that you have no choice but to enjoy the performance and ask for more. Really, how could you argue when his voice alone can hypnotize you into a state of pure relaxation?
Unknown features Neeson playing Dr. Martin Harris, a botanist attending a conference in Berlin with his wife, Liz (January Jones). Upon arriving at their hotel, Martin realizes he has left his briefcase at the airport and jumps in a cab to retrieve it. On the way there, his cab swerves to avoid a fallen refrigerator (yes, you read that right) and plunges off a bridge into a river. His cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), pulls him out of the sinking car and four days later he wakes up in a hospital room with some memory loss. He remembers his name and eventually remembers the hotel at which he was staying. He returns there to find that his wife does not know who he is and another man (Aidan Quinn) is by her side claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris.
I’m particularly thankful that the previews didn’t ruin this film. The movie is intriguing because the audience is as confused as our hero, and the previews don’t spoil the conspiracy by revealing the conspirators or the reason they’ve stolen his identity. For the first half of the film, Martin does everything he can to prove that he is the real Dr. Harris – he tracks down Gina, confronts his doppelganger and wife, and hires an ex-Stasi (East German secret police) to investigate his identity. The film keeps the audience in the dark about the true nature of the scheme while muddying our perception of the identity of the real Dr. Harris. The confusion culminates in one of the best scenes of the film, when the two men recall a phone conversation with another researcher, reciting the words in unison.
Clarity comes when Martin goes to Gina’s apartment and a man attempts to capture or kill them both. After a quick session of hand-to-hand combat with the man, Martin and Gina jump into her cab and he drives as if he’s suddenly become James Bond. Not only did this sequence reveal the existence of a sinister plot, it was the point at which I realized Martin was more than just a botanist…
I must stop here because I don’t want to give away anything more, but I will tell you that all questions get answered by the end. I’m not just talking about the big questions like who, what, and why, but also the little things. You will understand how both Harrises knew the words to the phone conversation with the researcher, how Martin got his James Bond driving skills, why he remembers certain things, how he and his doppelganger have matching photos of themselves with Liz, and the meaning of much of the dialogue that passes during the first half of the film. Unlike most movies, this one leaves nothing to interpretation.
Neeson and Kruger lead with strong performances. Both of them dove into their roles, making it very easy to invest in and sympathize with them. Quinn and Frank Langella (playing a colleague of Dr. Harris) both performed adequately in the screen time they were given, but Jones – looking every bit as classically beautiful as a doctor’s wife is expected to look – delivers a one-dimensional performance and stands out (in a bad way) against the rest of the cast. Thankfully, her screen time is almost as limited as Quinn’s and Langella’s, and we’re free to enjoy Neeson and Kruger. Perhaps the best character is the ex-Stasi investigator (Bruno Ganz). Even though his character has a historically evil background, he seems harmless and charms the audience. His duality makes him more believable as an ex-spy, yet we’re sad when his character exits the film.
Overall, the movie is entertaining and interesting, though slow to develop. Unknown reminded me of Taken, but the darker evil plot of Taken requires more passion and fire from the hero (also played by Neeson), which makes Taken a superior film. The only thing Unknown offers that Taken does not is a twist and revelation at the end. Fortunately, you won’t miss the passion and fire as Neeson’s voice slowly hypnotizes you...
Rating: Ask for two dollars back. While the twist at the end is a surprise, its nature is a bit of a letdown when it is revealed.