What the hell happened to Liam Neeson? For a while there, things were looking good: Schindler’s List and Michael Collins were great showcases for the actor’s talents, and he seemed poised to be an actor’s actor, the kind you speak about in reverential tones and hotly tip every year to take out yet another award. Yet a string of cinematic missteps befell the poor actor (not to mention his off-screen tragedy), and he seems to have been playing for the lowest common denominator since at least 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. With the possible exception of his turns in Kinsey and Batman Begins, Neeson has taken Nicolas Cage-esque turn (without the dodgy hair) by wallowing in the depths of After.Life, The A-Team, Chloe, Clash and of the Titans. Indeed, Neeson most distinguished role of late has been the voice of an animated lion. So Neeson has saddled up for some European action again with Unknown, from director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphans).
Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) arrives in Berlin with his wife Elizabeth (January Jones, Mad Men) for a forthcoming conference. Shortly after arriving at the hotel, Neeson realises he has left a briefcase containing his documentation at the airport, and without telling his wife hops into a cab to retrieve them. However, when cab driver Gina (Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds) swerves to avoid a road accident, she drives them both off a bridge and into the river. When Martin awakens, he remembers little of what happened, but is determined to find his wife. However, when he finally tracks Elizabeth down, she does not seem to remember him, and another man (Aidan Quinn, Sarah’s Key) is claiming to be Martin Harris.
‘Hitchcockian’ is the adjective that springs to mind, and while the producers of Unknown would love to use that as a pull-quote in a slick TV spot or DVD release, Collet-Serra’s film is a far cry from any of the slick McGuffin’s that the Master of Suspense would throw our way. Descending from the noble heritage of a genre that North by Northwest perfected in 1959, the apple falls pretty far from the tree here. More of a spiritual successor to Pierre Morel’s Taken, the surface-level twists that Unknown takes us on are not necessarily predictable, as there are a few genuine surprises throughout, but standard thriller fodder nevertheless. As our stranger in a strange land uncovers yet another layer of his onion of intrigue, you may feel the tears of frustration coming on as it simply doesn’t go far enough at times. Simple connections are made on flimsy clues, and if there is an immense cover-up going on (as we are led to believe in the early parts of the film), then there have been some rather sloppy cleaners keeping tabs on the loose ends. Yet as far as formulaic thrillers go, Unknown doesn’t so much transcend the genre as play its familiar notes with workmanlike competence.
The casting is actually pretty spot-on though, with Neeson (on a particularly bad roll at the moment) still delivering a deliberately intense piece of acting. The casting of the German-born Diane Kruger as an illegal Bosnia immigrant living in German is a little odd, but as a veteran of two National Treasure films, she has become a natural at going with the flow of these roller coaster plots. A surprising inclusion to the cast is the German national treasure Bruno Ganz (The Reader), no worse for wear after appearing in countless Downfall parodies on YouTube, as an ex-Stasi private investigator. He, along with the transparently sinister Frank Langella (The Box), provide a bit of old-school weight to the film but are all simply tools in a predestined conclusion.
The Reel Bits: We know there are known unknowns, that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. Yet if Hollywood has taught us anything, there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. Unknown ticks all the rights boxes for a genre thriller, although never draw outside the lines of the boxes.
Unknown was released on February 17, 2011 in Australia by Roadshow Films.