Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell
Liam Neeson as Dr. Martin Harris
Diane Kruger as Gina
January Jones as Elizabeth Harris
Running time: 113 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content.
That’s a mighty big biscuit, Ma. Must I swallow it all?
It seems like Liam Neeson has always been around. He has crossed the paths of such well-known characters as Batman, Dirty Harry, Yoda, The Nazis, and many more. He has probably been in more films than either you or I could count at short notice, and he does not seem afraid to try anything — who would have thought Darkman, for example? Recently he has gotten into the business of action thrillers, and received notable praise for Luc Besson’s recent revenge drama Taken. The marketing of Unknown seemed geared toward the same fans, promising an extra measure of psychological mischief and a twisted tale of lost identity.
Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, who is in Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for a big important biotechnology conference… Or. So. It. Seems. From the very beginning, little clues indicate that something not quite on the level is up, but what could it be? When a chance mistake gets Martin into a serious car wreck, his whole world turns inside out. Waking from a four-day coma, he finds an impostor (Aidan Quinn) living his life. No one seems to believe that he is who he says he is, including his lovely wife. Pursued by menacing strangers, Martin must go on the run to find an ally and the proof of his identity.
The movie has quite a suitable cast. Liam Neeson plays the baffled anguish of his situation well. January Jones is wooden but pleasing to the eye. In all fairness, there is not much for her to do. Aidan Quinn is a perfect smirking bastard. Diane Kruger, as the taxi driver Martin begs for help, has much more dramatic clout. Two really nice surprises are the appearances of veteran character men Bruno Ganz (remember Hitler from Downfall and all those Youtube spoofs?) and Frank Langella (Nixon, Skeletor, Dracula, you name it) as a couple of old “professionals” whose single scene together is a great study in competent, understated acting. Ganz, who is really getting to be a little old man, has always been charismatic and a joy to watch. He and Neeson are definitely the standouts here.
Unfortunately, this movie suffers from a real lack of direction and pace. The big secret of the movie is not so bad, but the meandering sequence of events that reveal it do not fit comfortably together. The plot wanders past a number of reasonable stopping points that would have changed but also perhaps strengthened the story. This often happens in the adaptation of a complicated novel for the screen. Reluctance to condense the story properly results in too many loose ends.
This movie is reminiscent the 2006 French thriller Ne le dis à personne, adapted from Harlan Coben’s book Tell No One. In it, a man is consumed by grief after the apparent murder of his wife. Years later, he begins to receive mysterious messages that indicate she is still alive and for some reason in hiding from enemies. He sets out to find her, gathering bits of her secret history as he goes. Ultimately the movie is kind of a snoozer, since all the important plot details are kept until the end and the fun of even trying to figure the mystery out dries up pretty quickly. Unknown is burdened by a similar structure, but at least does its very best to keep us entertained along the way with all the standard-issue spy gear — car chase, knife fight, time bomb; just check them off as I call them out.
The greatest potential weakness of a mystery story is the tendency to hold back so many essential facts from the audience that they are forced to accept whatever explanation or culprit fits the disparate and seemingly meaningless clues that preceded it. Truman Capote ranted and raved on this subject to hilarious effect in the 1976 detective spoof Murder By Death. The maddening thing about Unknown is that it would play better as a taut, predictable, by-the-numbers mystery. Instead, it tries to get too clever on us. Twist after twist after twist bloats the plot until it ends up dragging its butt across the expensive carpet of our minds. That will be the last of the forced metaphors for today.
Consider a more classic comparison. In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock made a film called The Thirty-Nine Steps, based on a novel of the same name. In this film, an innocent man stumbles on a sinister plot by spies and has to go on the run. This is pretty standard suspense thriller fare. The question of figuring out what the secret may be takes second place to the immediate problem of survival. As the film’s hero finds both the bad guys and the law turned against him, he has no time to piece together the full story until the end.
I will not reveal any more about The Thirty-Nine Steps, especially because the movie is still worth enjoying, but the underlying plot seems extremely dated compared to most of Hitchcock’s more timeless works. Maybe it was not hokey back in 1935, but it is now. Unknown feels the same way, three quarters of a century later. One great advantage of the older film is a brief running time. At just under ninety minutes, it does not allow viewers the opportunity to get bored. Unknown pushes two hours, and had the extra time been scrapped, a trimmer version of the story might have been quite excellent. It is only because the movie shambles along at such an uneven pace that the mind begins to wander, and ultimately pick apart the plausibility of the story. Thrillers are by nature contrived works, and when making one, the biggest error you can make is allowing your audience too much time to think about it.