Plot: Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) awakens after a car accident in Berlin to discover that his wife (Jones) suddenly doesn't recognize him and another man (Quinn) has assumed his identity. Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by mysterious assassins, he finds himself alone, tired, and on the run. Aided by an unlikely ally (Kruger), Martin plunges headlong into a deadly mystery that will force him to question his sanity, his identity, and just how far he's willing to go to uncover the truth.
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Liam Neeson seems to have fallen into quite a lucky break. After his surprise hit Taken (2009), he has become an unusual older action hero of sorts. Before that, he had done action before (K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)), but Taken (2009) seems to have reinvigorated the public’s interest in him.
So will that public interest keep growing after his turn in Unknown or was Taken (2009) his last hurrah at headlining a film?
Liam Neeson, despite being nearly 60, shows he’s definitely up to his new-found fame as an action star. Never once do his fight scenes make you feel sorry for the old guy (see Firewall (2006)). This makes Neeson a good replacement for the seemingly over-the-hill Harrison Ford (who hopefully will be able to pull the action stint off again with Cowboys & Aliens (2011)).
Neeson is believable both as a mild-manned scientist and the amnesiac he quickly becomes, making him well-suited for the role. Some question his acting, calling it “wooden”. But, the bleak stare he produces as he struggles to figure out what to do next still has him outdistancing fellow action stars (like, oh, Daniel Craig, for instance).
As Neeson’s character continues on after losing his memory, he runs across quite a few familiar faces. Frank Langella’s quiet conversation with Bruno Ganz is a highpoint. So is Diane Kruger’s believable performance – even if her contrived accent isn’t. January Jones and Aidan Quinn are largely misused, becoming mere faces in the background.
Unknown, like previous amnesiac hit The Bourne Identity (2002), does grab the viewer’s attention right from the trailer. The film plays out the suspense for quite awhile before finally uncovering the reasoning behind it all. Some of it does seem a bit too contrived (the nurse just happens to known an ex-Stasi member who can help him? the cab driver turns out to be as much of an action hero as Liam Neeson himself wants to be?). Thankfully, most of these contrivances initially seem to also help the film, tossing in both clues and red herrings (is the nurse in on it? the Stasi member? the cab driver? Why no cell reception?). Unfortunately the film doesn’t concentrate on these enough to make the viewer really start wondering about them. Instead, it seems content to throw as many red herrings in the way as possible, hoping one might stick and distract the viewer from the “surprise” twist.
Unfortunately, that means that by the time the surprise twist is presented, the viewer at first discounts it as another red herring, despite the glaring obviousness of the realization. This presents a bit of a problem in itself for the film. So, like most Hollywood pictures, they spend the rest of the film drilling the reality into the viewer ad naseum, complete with cliched sequences of action heroics and the silly, longer flashback sequences.
Until the truth is revealed, Unknown, almost in spite of itself, should keep viewers watching. That’s despite the fact that some the sequences reveal quite a bit of unintentional comedy (the double-take of watching Liam and Aidan voicing a speech in harmony is more funny than it is frightening, as is the SUV supposed menacing of a Mercedes taxi – with the Mercedes managing to give out as much punishment as it receives AND being able to slightly outdistance the SUV, even in reverse!). Overall, the quick pacing of the film doesn’t give the viewer much of a chance to scoff at the sequence on screen before the viewer is whisked off to another sequence nearly as contrived as the last.
A bit too simplistic of a search leaves the viewer wanting a bit more from Unknown than what they got. Viewers will go in hoping for the next The Bourne Identity (2002) and come out feeling like they got the next inferior The Bourne Identity (2002) copycat instead – and that’s quite a distinction.