Taken, for all of its faults (and there were many), at least stumbled upon the fact that Liam Neeson can be a badass action star. Unknown, clearly influenced by Taken and other Euro-trash thrillers, says “Fantastic! Let’s put his ass-kicking persona all the way at the end of the movie and then just have him stumble around for the majority of the runtime!” Rather than offer up a complex mystery built around an unreliable protagonist, Unknown clears up any major misunderstanding by the end of the first act, and then we’re bored stupid by Neeson wandering around as he’s hunted by non-descript bad guys as the clumsy narrative lurches towards an inevitable twist and his transformation to Taken Guy. The film wastes its premise, its mystery, its lead actor, and only at the end does it have the courtesy to become laughably terrible.
Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is in Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology conference. When he arrives at his hotel, he realizes that he’s left his briefcase at the airport and grabs a cab to go retrieve it. On his way, a freak accident sends his cab hurtling off a bridge and Martin bumps his noggin. His life is saved by his driver Gina (Diane Kruger) and he wakes up in a hospital after a four-day coma. He rushes back to the hotel to meet up with Liz only to discover that she doesn’t recognize him and that another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) has taken his place.
This is where Unknown has the opportunity to get interesting. Granted, a stronger opening would set up the film with Martin waking up in the hospital and giving us no objective window into his pre-accident reality. The film briefly plays with the question of whether or not Martin is mad or if there’s a larger conspiracy that’s out to get him. After 30 minutes, the film gets tired of this question and simply says, “Yes, they’re out to get him.”
That doesn’t necessarily spell death for a movie. Plenty of great thrillers (most notably by Alfred Hitchcock) center on a hapless individual out of his or her depth and being hunted by shadowy, ruthless forces. Neeson has a strong everyman quality that could play to this situation to great effect. But somehow Unknown just manages to blow it. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has all the pieces in play, but doesn’t have a clue on how to derive tension from the situation. We should be able to sympathize with Martin and understand his drive to be reunited with his wife, but that’s difficult when apparently his only memories of her are the time she gave him an expensive watch and the time they had sex in the shower. While I find it totally believable that he would retain these memories more than others, I was hoping Martin might have other fond memories of his wife that were slightly more heart-warming than a Rolex and a shower-fuck.
Unknown wants to be a pulse-pounding thriller, but that would require the film to have a pulse to pound. The film solves its mystery by the end of the first act, doesn’t offer thrills because we don’t care about the characters, and all of the action is rote and mechanical. The ending does get laughably bad, like when Frank Langella asks Liam Neeson to step into his windowless van so he can explain the entire movie. That’s a small blessing because Unknown clearly has no idea how to be intentionally entertaining.