Walking out of a preview screening of Unknown – a new thriller starring Liam Neeson – I turned to my wife and said, “If that hadn’t been based on a true story, I don’t think I would have believed a minute of it.”
I was being facetious, of course. Unknown is not based on a true story, and it’s not particularly believable, although much of the time I’m not sure its credibility really matters.
More to the point: If Unknown had had half a brain, it might have been an exceptional thriller. But wait. It does have half a brain – the half that can concoct an intriguing premise, create real tension and spice things up with decently mounted action sequences.
The other half? The half that knows how to bring a thriller to a satisfying conclusion? That half never seems to have developed.
Still, Unknown keeps you involved, in no small part because its story takes place Berlin during a chilly November weekend; the movie has enough frosty atmosphere to slide past some of its rough spots.
Neeson plays Martin Harris, a botanist who flies to Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for a biotech convention. When he arrives at his hotel, Harris realizes that he’s left his briefcase at the airport. He grabs a cab, and races back to the airport. En route, the cab gets into a horrific accident. Harris winds up in a four-day coma.
When he awakens and tries to resume his life, he’s greeted with alarming news. His wife no longer recognizes him. Worse yet, another man is claiming to be Martin Harris. This impostor seems to be living Harris’ life.
This leads to the obvious questions: Has Harris gone crazy? Is there a scandalous plot afoot? For reasons neither Harris nor we know, is someone trying to push the real Harris aside? It’s either the world’s greatest case of identity theft or Harris has fallen prey to paranoid delusions, a distinct possibility because he hit his head during the vividly presented crash.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) has skills. He knows how to create suspense, put an action sequence in motion and keep us wondering just when Unknown’s going to get around to making sense of a plot that’s better in the build-up than in its resolution.
Neeson (Clash of the Titans and Taken) seems to be making a habit of finding scripts that emphasize action, although this one does on occasion flirt with intelligence. Look, I like Neeson's work, but worry that his most interesting recent role took the form of a near-cameo in Paul Haggis’ forgettable The Next Three Days. He played an expert on jailbreaks.
The rest of the cast proves variable. Jones, best known for her work in Mad Men, seems a one-dimensional actress in a role that required at least two. Veteran German actor Bruno Ganz may be looking a bit decrepit, but still can steal a scene. Ganz plays a private investigator and former Stasi officer who tries to help Martin figure out what’s happening to him.
And Diane Kruger (of Inglourious Basterds) does a decent enough job as an illegal Bosnian immigrant who drives the cab that plunges Martin into a river. Kruger’s Gina may be able to help Martin straighten out the mess in which he finds himself.
The movie never really untangles all of its own messes, but it has some thrills and tension. In the end, you don’t need to believe its story to get something out of it. I hate to keep repeating this February mantra, but: Lower your expectations and proceed accordingly.