Back in 2008, Liam Neeson re-invented himself as a middle aged toughnut with Taken, a brutal and bloody tale of a fathers quest to find his daughter after she is abducted whilst on holiday in Europe. Bizarrely, it became a favourite with almost everyone, with teenage girls and grandmothers commenting on how much of a great time they had watching Neeson pummelling the life out of anyone who crossed his path. Whilst there are sparks of similar content in Unknown, it certainly isn’t as action packed but by no means less entertaining.
Doctor Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife Liz (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a science conference where Martin is booked to give a speech. When they arrive at the hotel, he realises that he’s left an important suitcase at the airport. Quickly hailing another cab, he rushes back to the airport to retrieve it. It’s during this journey that the driver loses control of the car, and they crash into the river. The driver (Diane Kruger) rescues him, but promptly disappears.
Waking up after a 4 day coma, Martins memory is hazy, but he remembers basic things like his name and who his wife is. He tracks her down back at the hotel, finding it unusual that she hadn’t once come looking for him or reported him missing. As he approaches her and speaks, she looks completely unaware as to who he is, and denies any knowledge of ever knowing him. What’s worse, she’s with another man who claims to be Martin Harris, with authentic ID and even family photos. Enlisting the help of the taxi driver who saved his life, he sets out to uncover the truth about what’s really going on, whilst starting to doubt his own existence.
Obviously, with the success of Taken, the marketing team behind Unknown were going to make comparisons and add it into the adverts:
“LIAM NEESON TRYING TO FIND SOMETHING! EUROPE! LIAM NEESON!”
But really, it’s nothing like it. The reason why Taken is so popular is due to its ‘popcorn’ nature; there isn’t any thought needed and apart from the small 5 minute scene between Neeson and his daughter it lacks any real emotion. Basically, no brain is required to enjoy the barrage of punch ups and car chases. Unknown takes a different approach to things, and there is much more dialogue and talking things through than the trailers lead to believe. Really though, if it’s given some thought, it was always going to be this way. Otherwise, it simply would have been:
Harris: “I have no idea who I am. I should probably beat everybody in sight until I remember”.
Which does sound like a great film to be honest, but the slow uncovering of events that the film chooses to take works better. There are scenes of action, but they’re infrequent and usually involve a taxi, a form of transport Neeson should avoid in future. He’s on fine form here, but the role hardly required any effort; look rough, sound gruff and act tough when called upon. Diane Kruger puts on a dodgy accent but performs well as Harris’ sidekick. It was an unusual pairing; he had a wife, but I wasn’t sure if there want meant to be any chemistry between Harris and the taxi driver. Not that there was any, it just seemed a little pointless making his accomplice a female if they weren’t going to feel something for each other at any point.
Frank Langella is quite possibly the standout performer in a small but pivotal role. His portrayal of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon is utterly mesmerising, and it’s a shame that it hasn’t shot him to lead role fame. Credit also to Bruno Ganz as Ernest Jurgen, the ex spy who literally does all the leg work for Harris, scouring the internet and records to discover who he really is.
The “twist” is nothing new, but because of the excellent build up with facts dripped through and countless red herrings, it’s forgiveable. Sure, it feels tacked on and you might also feel a little cheated, but if you were entertained by the previous hour and ten minutes, the writers did their jobs well (up until the finale, anyway). It gives the impression of being an intelligent thriller, only to end as a conventional and unoriginal action movie.
Despite this, Unknown is still a largely enjoyable piece of cinema that will keep the attention of the majority of casual movie-goers. It doesn’t have the bone crunching action of Taken , but has it’s own merits including Liam Neeson, an intriguing narrative and strong performances from all involved.
Oh, and did I mention it has Liam Neeson?