While “Unknown” serves as a passably entertaining thriller, it suffers from poor marketing and a derivative storyline.
Adding another chapter in the “Liam Neeson vs. Random European Country,” the most important thing you should know before going into “Unknown” is it’s definitely not “Taken 2” despite marketing to the contrary. The trailers showcase the only three action scenes of the movie, and the poster for the movie displays Neeson holding a gun — which doesn’t actually happen a single time. This isn’t to say the movie is bad, but manage your expectations.
Instead of wielding an AK-47 he’s wielding a PhD. Dr. Martin Harris is in Germany with his wife Elizabeth for a very important Biotech summit when he gets into an accident, falls into a coma and awakes to discover someone has stolen his identity — which, of course, no one believes. Neeson’s mission is then to prove his true identity and solve this puzzling mishap.
Neeson (“Taken,” “Batman Begins”) is the factor that keeps “Unknown” from B-movie schlock thriller status. The gravitas he brings to the role is enough to represent his character’s pain to an audience and gain their empathy. Bruno Ganz, who many will recognize as Adolf Hitler from the YouTube subtitle meme from a few years back, does an engaging job as the retired secret service officer Ernst Jurgen. But despite the strength of these two roles and Frank Langella’s (“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” “Frost/Nixon”) charismatic performance, the rest of the cast is tepid at best. Diane Kruger (“Inglorious Basterds,” “National Treasure”) fills the mandatory female lead role but doesn’t really get an opportunity to shine. Likewise, January Jones (“Mad Men,” upcoming “X-Men” movie) gives us another pretty face to look at, but not much more, as Generic Attractive Female B.
It’s important to state again I would classify this movie as a thriller well before I would call it an action movie. In fact, the first action sequence isn’t for at least a good hour into the movie. The film spends the bulk of its time trying to confuse the audience as to what the ultimate conclusion is, before spelling it out and unloading two or three twists in quick succession. Unfortunately, the story just can’t live up to the premise. The ultimate twist is derivative of a popular action movie of a few years back. Mentioning the name of the movie would reveal the twist. This doesn’t ruin the movie, it just serves as yet another reminder to how “Unknown” could have been a more entertaining action movie than a thriller.
For what it’s worth the few action sequences are very well done. The visual style is complex, but not hard to follow, and a short one-on-one sequence at the end showcases Liam Neeson’s action chops. There’s also an incredible car chase scene that stays exciting without dipping into absurdity; a delicate balancing act.
All in all, enjoying “Unknown” comes down to expectation management. If you’re looking for an entertaining thriller, then “Unknown” does the job. If you’re looking for an action-heavy movie or a Liam Neeson beat ‘em up, then give this a pass ’til rental and check out the superbly entertaining “Taken.”