Most spy thrillers are absurd. (James Bond, anyone?) Some are more absurd than others. "Unknown" is more absurd than most.
The picture launches from an intriguing if not exactly original premise. An American scientist (Liam Neeson) nearly loses his life in a car crash while visiting Berlin for a conference. Revived in a hospital, he’s shocked to discover that his wife (an inert January Jones) claims not to know who he is. He’s shocked further to find that another man (Aidan Quinn, trapped in an underwritten part) is claiming to be him and has very convincing proof of his identity: family picture, passport, Internet page. Neeson’s character, on the other hand, has nothing: no ID, virtually no knowledge of the German language, no one to vouch for him. He’s adrift, a stranger in a strange land whose memory is scrambled by injuries sustained in the car wreck.
And then strange men appear on the scene and try very hard to kill him. What’s going on?
It’s complicated. Absurdly so.
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The longer “Unknown” goes on, the more unbelievable it becomes. The screenplay – credited to Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, who based it on a novel by French author Didier van Cauwelaert – relies heavily on characters behaving in irrational and unlikely ways.
An example: A conspirator willingly volunteers information that gives Neeson the key to unraveling the conspiracy, when keeping quiet would have kept Neeson right where the conspirators want him: clueless, in the dark. Why? The picture offers no clue.
Bungling hit men, obligatory car chases (there are two: one quite gripping, the other superfluous) and a literally explosive conclusion, complete with clichéd bad-guy-versus-good-guy fight scene, all contribute to the picture’s undoing. But it’s the nature of its central conspiracy, which is at once jaw-droppingly complicated and utterly unbelievable, that fatally undermines the movie.
Despite all of that, “Unknown” isn’t laughable, at least not while its playing out. When it’s over, you may chuckle or just shake your head and sigh at the sheer improbability of what you’ve just seen. But thanks to the quality of its performances, principally Neeson’s, it does hold your attention. From “Rob Roy” to “Gangs of New York” to “Taken” (on whose popularity “Unknown” is obviously trying to capitalize), Neeson brings tremendous authority to all the roles he plays – authority and intelligence. Taking a page from “Taken,” “Unknown” seeks to build his brand as the thinking man’s action hero.
His character in “Unknown” is confused and anguished, and Neeson plays that pain, perplexity and growing paranoia with such conviction that it distracts attention from the picture’s structural flaws.
In a small role as the German former secret policeman Neeson turns to for help in solving the mystery of his stolen identity, Bruno Ganz brings a weariness and a subtle inscrutability to the role that makes the character stand out.
Diane Kruger plays a taxi driver who rescues Neeson’s character after the opening car wreck and then becomes another target of the killers who are pursuing him. Kruger’s character is a Bosnian illegal immigrant struggling to make a living in Berlin’s underground economy, but that angle is never really explored by the filmmakers, and it seems like an unnecessary complication that contributes nothing to the story.
Kruger’s character is a little reminiscent of the woman Franka Potente played in the “Bourne” movies – a supportive outsider on the run with a mentally confused hero – and that fact, plus the snowy Berlin locations and the staging of the picture’s key car chase, all give the unmistakable impression that director Jaume Collet-Serra and his collaborators intended “Unknown” to be a thriller in the “Bourne” mode. Because of its erratic pacing and preposterous plotting, however, it comes off as a second-rate imitation.
* * *
Cast: Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz, Aidan Quinn
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Running time: 1:49
Rating: PG-13; violence, language, sexual situation