Unknown was a lot more drama than actual action, despite what the marketing campaign tried to sell us. Obviously, the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of Liam Neeson’s action thriller hit Taken by marketing this movie as such, but this is hardly in the same league.
Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris who was come to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit. However, attempting to return to the airport for a piece of luggage, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for multiple days. When he awakens, his wife suddenly doesn’t recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity. Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by mysterious assassins, he finds himself alone, tired and on the run. Aided by an unlikely ally in the taxicab driver who saved his life (Diane Kruger), Harris delves into a dangerous mystery forcing him to question his sanity, his identity and just how far he’s willing to go to uncover the truth. Pieces gradually interlock to reveal more than Martin ever could’ve imagined about himself, and what is truly at work that he is now compelled to combat.
I’ve seen both positive and negative reviews praise the premise of the movie and its originality. I do not know what movies these critics have been watching because my thoughts are to the contrary. My main gripe is that the plot is a near carbon copy of The Bourne Identity with a few varying elements, but at its core, its the same basic plotline only not executed nearly as well. Both Unknown and The Bourne Identity were based on novels, but the novel that Unknown was based on, Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert, was published twenty-four years after Robert Ludlum’s well known novel. So, there’s nothing really new to see here, and no one even attempts to disguise it. Many films have similar plots, but the really good, even great filmmakers find ways to make it appear fresh, exciting, and interesting. Unknown did not achieve that for me. It’s not terrible, not at all, but it just comes off as not trying hard enough. There are very good actors in this, but none of them seem to really put their full heart into it. The film comes off as passable, not exceptional.
Neeson turns in a fine performance that carries the film nicely, possibly making it better than anyone attempted to make it, and of course, the action requirements are not a difficulty for him. Nothing here is a challenge for him, which may be a shortcoming of the movie, but he doesn’t slack off at all. It just doesn’t give him anything new to wrap his talent around. Of course, that’s not something I really have any issue with. What did bother me was how underused Frank Langella was in this movie. His appearance as a sort of an old government “spook” is painfully underplayed to the point that any actor could’ve filled the role and done it just as well. That’s a terrible remark to couple with Langella because he is an immensely powerful, enveloping actor with a wide range of talents. He has inhabited so many diverse roles throughout his career that it’s sad to see him take on a role that seems like a quick, phoned in paycheck. I can’t imagine he’s hard pressed for quality acting roles. However, this does work as an example of the movie. Whatever talent is involved is not motivated to push for anything better than mediocre. It’s all standard fare, average offerings.
The action is very good when it happens, but there’s hardly enough to sustain momentum or interest for the plot. I didn’t remain intently invested in the characters, or was as convinced of their motivations as better films have been able to do. Circumstances and plot twists just don’t impact deeply enough to create believable reasons for the characters to push forward with their intentions. Again, this is due to no one giving an extra effort to engage an audience’s invested interest.
The cinematography was entirely standard fare for the genre these days. More handheld, shaky cam, fast editing stuff. I’m beyond tired of that, and I wish filmmakers would get more inventive and clever when filming action sequences. There are so many untapped ideas in that realm, it’s aggravating how many films just do the exact same thing every single time. There was a time when action film directors had more self-identity and originality in the look and style of their own movies. That time seems almost entirely behind us, now. Why that is, I do not know, but this method of action cinematography and editing wore out its welcome a very long time ago. Director of photography Flavio Labiano and editor Timothy Alverson really have nothing notable on their filmographies, and if they keep up this unoriginal, uninspired work, they won’t get any. The same goes for the screenwriters and the director Jaume Collet-Serra. Seriously, the director of the House of Wax remake? I think that explains enough.
As I said at the start, this doesn’t have enough action to be really classified as a action film. It’s closer to a dramatic mystery thriller. It’s a lot of Martin Harris running around Berlin trying to piece together information and struggle with his sanity and perceptions. Action sequences are not all that frequent, and again, when they do occur, they are poorly presented. The quiet dramatic moments are nicely handled, mostly due to Neeson’s talent. However, films ultimately fail when they market themselves as something they are not, and that occurred with Unknown.
I’ve seen review quotes stating this film’s superiority over Neeson’s previous action thriller Taken. Personally, Taken was a far better crafted, more tightly executed, more emotionally investing, and more exciting action thriller. This doesn’t have the pace, energy, or momentum to rival that film, and the studio would’ve been wiser to avoid such comparisons. However, if they hadn’t they might have lost some box office revenue. Even on its own merits, this is still a mediocre movie. I can’t really recommend it because there are so many superior films in the genre, and other films that have done this premise with more success. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not particularly good, either.