Movie Review: Unknown

by Alan Rapp on February 18, 2011

in Print Reviews

Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist from the United States who arrives in Germany with his wife (January Jones) for a medical conference, only to find his very life stolen from him in the space of four days.

After a car accident leaves him in a coma, Martin awakes days later to find his life has been Taken away from him and an another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity. Frantic, Martin tries to piece together his fractured memory with the help of a cab driver (Diane Kruger) and a former East German spy (Bruno Ganz).

The film was based on the novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert, but could have just as easily been pieced together from a variety of recent Hollywood thrillers. There’s nothing new added to the equation, and the execution is far from thrilling.

That’s not to say Unknown is a bad film. It hits the right marks, the action sequences are passable, and the movie does include one fairly well done car chase through the streets of Berlin.

The structure of the film limits both the dramatic impact of scenes and the surprise (or lack of) over the eventual unraveling of the mystery. We’re introduced to Martin and his wife before the accident.

Even if the film allows him to question his sanity momentarily (for all of 15 seconds before a hitman tries to kill him) we know he’s not insane. This drastically cuts down on the choices the screenwriter has to square various characters and plot issues (such as Martin’s doppelgänger, his wife’s reaction to him, mysterious codes, and the various threats against his life) with little things like logic and common sense.

Neeson, no stranger to throwaway thrillers these days, carries the film well. We never really grow to care for the character, but he’s a good enough actor for us to stay with him as he peels away the layers of Deception to find the truth. And I’m always willing to spend a couple of hours with Diane Kruger.

Sadly, I was less impressed with Jones who I felt was poorly cast, especially considering the changes to her character as the film progresses through its several twists and turns. She would have fit more naturally into Kruger’s role, which requires her to be mostly standoffish and scared while running for her life rather than the character at the center of the mystery. Frank Langella has a small but important role as Martin’s friend, but there’s little doubt from his first second onscreen whose side he’s really on.

The twist/revelation on which the entire premise relies is far less shocking than it means to be. Although it does (for the most part) explain away what has happened to his character, it doesn’t have the impact today it might have had 15 or 20 years ago. Anyone who has a passing relationship with Robert Ludlum‘s work (or the Bourne films adapted from his novels) won’t be the least bit surprised by what happens here.

For a midwinter action-thriller, Unknown, even with its various twists and turns, isn’t anything more than you’d expect.

Those looking for nothing more than a forgettable thriller may get their money’s worth, but the reason for the film’s unnecesarry existence will be left Unknown.

A stalwart fan of under-appreciated cinematic gems such as Condorman, Alan Rapp has harangued, belittled, and argued with just about every Scene-Stealers contributor ever. More of his insight, comic nerdiness, and righteous fury can be found at dadsbigplan, RazorFine Review, and ‘Xplosion of Awesome, and the Four Color Freak-Out podcast.

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