A few years ago, Liam Neeson stumbled into a new genre of film with "Taken", a silly action film conceived and produced by Luc Besson, the French Joel Silver. It was a big hit and proved the addition of the venerable actor's gravitas to a dumb action film could help the movie stand out from the pack. Hollywood was eager to replicate the success, so Joel Silver brought "Unknown" to the popular star.
"Taken" and "Unknown" have their respective producer's stamp all over them; Besson films are marked by outlandish, unbelievable story turns and Silver's films usually contain elaborately choreographed improbable action sequences. Yet, because both films star Neeson, and both are set in European cities, I think people assume both films are more similar than they actually are.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed "Taken". In it, Neeson's character uses his dormant skill set, abandoned when he changed jobs to save his marriage, to travel to Paris and track down his kidnapped daughter. Unlike Besson's next film "From Paris With Love", "Taken" works because, and only because of, Neeson's performance. He is so serious throughout you begin to believe he could actually track down his daughter and fight his way though the multitude of bad guys surrounding her.
In "Unknown", Neeson's character, Dr. Martin Harris, and his quest, have a lot more turns and facets, making the journey more cerebral, more suspenseful and more interesting.
That said, my partner guessed the storyline after watching the preview a few months before we actually got to see the film. But I found myself becoming engrossed in the story just the same,
Dr, Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife, Liz (January Jones, TV's "Mad Men") arrive in Berlin for a summit. Henry has been invited to speak at a summit sponsored by a leading scientist (Sebastian Koch) ready to reveal a major breakthrough. A controversial Arab leader also sponsors the summit. Because of all of this, security is tight. Upon their arrival, Martin realizes he left his briefcase at the airport and hails a taxi to go back and get it. Liz stays to check in. On the way to the airport, the taxi gets in an accident and plunges into the river. Gina (Diane Kruger), the driver, saves Martin but quickly runs off. Four days later, Martin wakes up in the hospital. He rushes back to the hotel and finds Liz, but she doesn't recognize him. In fact, she introduces Martin, and hotel security, to her husband, Martin (Aidan Quinn). Martin becomes frantic and confused. Then people start trying to kill him.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra ("Orphan", "House of Wax (2005)"), "Unknown" would be referred to by many as 'Hitchcockian'. Many thrillers are still labeled with this term, trying to draw a connection to the renowned filmmaker. "Unknown" is one of the few films deserving the connection; it is evocative of late Hitchcock, lesser Hitchcock, "Torn Curtain" Hitchcock, but Collet-Serra gets enough right to earn this comparison.
Once again, Neeson's gravitas makes the film watchable and more interesting than it may have a right to be.
From the moment the film begins and we meet the couple in the airplane upon their arrival in Berlin, Martin is a serious man; he Is seriously in love with his wife, seriously interested in delivering a good speech at the conference, seriously interested in his colleague's research, seriously confused and becomes seriously pissed off at the people trying to kill him. As soon as he wakes up in the hospital, he tries to piece together what happened. He's been in a coma for four days? His wife has been alone in a city she doesn't know for four days? Then he realizes his wife has been alone for four days while he was in a coma. He rushes to the hotel and spots her.
Neeson plays the role straight. In every moment, he has a goal. The goal changes throughout the film, but we always know what he is trying to figure out. The key to his performance is when Martin spots Liz in the hotel. She stares at him blankly, seems a bit confused, and introduces him to her husband. Martin is thoroughly defeated. Maybe he did get things mixed up. Maybe he does have a concussion and the accident was more harmful than he felt. So he returns to the hospital. As he waits for the doctor to run additional tests, someone tries to kill him. He gets pissed off and realizes someone; somewhere is trying to hide something.
January Jones is cool and icy and evocative of Tippi Hedren. Liz is enough of an enigma to remain mysterious. Jones walks a tightrope throughout. She has to convince us everything she knows is true, basically contradicting everything we learn. She doesn't seem to fit into the puzzle, but because she is so sure Martin is not her husband, she causes him to feel doubt.
The last piece of the puzzle is Diane Kruger's Gina. As she drives the cab Martin is in when he has the accident, is she a piece of the puzzle as well? How does she fit into the puzzle? Gina, an illegal living in Berlin, trying to desperately raise money to get her papers and get out of the city. She takes shifts driving her friend's cab and works other jobs. She seems real and authentic throughout. And in this type of film, this usually means she is involved in some way.
Bruno Ganz has a memorable role as Ernst Jurgen, a former Stazi agent who now fills his time as a private eye. He calls on his considerable connections to help him figure things out and tries to help his new client, Martin. There are other facets to his character that make him even more interesting and unusual.
Martin is given Jurgen's contact information and arranges to meet with him. Jurgen seems perplexed by the changes going on in the society around him but faces the daily challenges with a certain amount of detachment. After listening to Martin's story, he agrees to poke around a bit. This character is a nice touch because he adds validity to Martin's quest.
Frank Langella pops up as one of Martin's colleagues, a man who may be able to help piece the puzzle together.
"Unknown" has a lot of twists and turns. Generally, these can be problematic. The filmmakers are usually not skilled enough to tie everything together, to make everything fit in a believable way an d most viewers are savvy enough to spot these problems right away. But Collet-Serra makes them work. Less skilled directors learn about Hitchcock's use of the 'MacGuffin' and think it gives them license to do whatever they want. But Hitchcock understood he was making a deal with the audience. If the hero is looking for a wine bottle filled with uranium ore or a small statue filled with microfilm, this item needs to remain ever present in the film. This item drives the characters to do what they are doing. The MacGuffin is essential. We don't need to know what it is, but we need to know it is important.
In "Unknown", the MacGuffin is basically a scientific discovery to be revealed at the conference. Throughout the film, as Martin tries to figure out what is going on, the conference looms in the background. Martin and Liz are traveling to attend the conference. An Arab leader is hosting the conference, leading to heightened security. Professor Bressler, the key speaker, is rumored to have a big announcement scheduled for the conference. As soon as Martin wakes up, he tries to figure out what is going on and everything keeps pointing back to the conference.
"Unknown" is produced by Joel Silver, so improbable; over the top action scenes are part of the mix. Surprisingly, these are fairly well integrated and don't detract from the overall experience.
Neeson's newest is a surprise, the pacing is taught, the mystery involving, the suspense is good and the acting is believable. Well worth your time and money.