Unknown is an utterly preposterous film, but if you grant its assumptions, it will keep you engaged and take you on a thrilling ride. It stars Liam Neeson as Dr. Martin Harris, who travels to Berlin with his wife, Liz (January Jones), to speak at a biotechnology conference and meet a botanist who has made an important breakthrough. A cab ride back to the airport goes wrong; a truck loses its shipment, causing the cab to swerve off the road, zoom over a bridge, and plunge into a river. Harris wakes up in the hospital four days later, and although his memory is fractured, he remembers that he’s in Berlin with his wife and that he’s supposed to speak at a conference. Against his doctor’s advice, he returns to his hotel and finds Liz – who suddenly doesn’t recognize him. Worse still, another man (Aiden Quinn) has assumed his identity.
It’s not merely a matter of posing as Liz’s husband. This other man, whoever he is, has personal photographs, identification, and his picture on Harris’ internet profile page. He even knows intimate details about the personal life of the botanist, Dr. Bressler (Sebastian Koch); an amusing scene has both men, in perfect unison, rattling off facts and figures about Bressler and their own lives. Is it possible Harris isn’t who he thinks he is? If not, then why are mysterious men trying to kill him? As Harris tries to make sense of the situation, he meets Gina (Diane Kruger), an illegal Bosnian who drove the cab he nearly drowned in. He also seeks out Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former Stasi agent known for getting to the bottom of things.
Everything hinges on the plot twist, which involves a sequence of numbers, a Middle Eastern prince, and Harris’ colleague, Professor Rodney Cole (Frank Langella). The ads have eluded to it so well that, when seeing the finished film, I almost wished I could skip everything building up to it and just know what was going on. I’ve been critical of plot twists for two reasons: Either they’re structured so intricately that they seem mechanical and forced, or they’re so monumentally ridiculous that they suggest a lack of faith in an audience’s intelligence. Unknown is written in such a way that the twist is not only appropriate, but also surprising – a rare combination. It’s not a matter of believability; if it were, there would no reason to see the film at all. It’s simply a matter of going with the flow, of allowing yourself to take the story for what it is. If we can freely suspend disbelief for films like Salt, why can’t we for this?
Comparisons have been made to another Liam Neeson film, 2009’s Taken. I have to admit, though, I’m not sure how fair they are. While both films are about extraordinary men embroiled in international intrigue, Unknown is slightly more stylized – nowhere near the level of James Bond or Jason Bourne, but definitely along the lines of a spy thriller. It’s precisely because of this that it’s a better film than Taken. It takes itself a little less seriously. Any film with a car chase that actually looks like the work of stunt drivers has to be taken with a grain of salt, especially when one of the cars flips upside down and lands in the path of speeding streetcar. It’s called building tension.
What surprised me about this film was that I was made to care about the characters. Harris is determined and ruthless, but he also earns our sympathy; we want to get to the truth just as badly as he does. When we do finally get to the truth, we actually want to stick with him, for he devises a new plan of action, one that inevitably becomes an exciting race against the clock. Gina is perhaps standard as the female sidekick, although the filmmakers wisely avoided involving her in a romantic subplot. This in turn allowed for a more developed character, and while she may not be relatable to everyone, she never once fails to hold our interest. The word “chemistry” is thrown around all too often in movie reviews, but the simple fact is that Kruger and Neeson are a natural fit here. So too are Neeson and Jones – although their characters share something entirely different.
The only real disappointment is Langella. He’s painfully underutilized, but more to the point, his character is so obvious that he might as well appear onscreen with a sign hanging around his neck. Worse still, his one good line of dialogue has unfortunately been wasted in the ads; if you have managed to avoid them, believe me when I say that you’re better off. What he says to Neeson should have been kept a secret, much like the truth behind Neeson’s character. I’m well aware that better action thrillers have been made, and if you want a recommendation, might I suggest Tony Scott’s Unstoppable? All the same, Unknown accomplished what it set out to accomplish, implausible premise and all. Sometimes, we as moviegoers can’t ask for anything more than that.
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Warner Bros. Pictures