Screen Rant's Ben Kendrick reviews Unknown
Liam Neeson returns to the international action-thriller genre in Unknown, previously Unknown White Male, as a man with a fractured memory in Berlin who must uncover the details of his life in order to reclaim his identity.
Is the film, based on the Didier van Cauwelaert novel Out of My Head, worth getting to know – or will you wish you could forget it ever happened?
Despite a headlining star like Liam Neeson, Unknown was brought into being by a mostly unknown group of filmmakers (I know, I know... sorry). The movie was scripted by a set of writers with limited film credits - Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, as well as helmed by director Jaume Collet-Serra, who has yet to enjoy a critical box office success.
If you’re unfamiliar with Unknown, or maybe you’ve just forgotten, here’s the synopsis:
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) awakens after a car accident in Berlin to discover that his wife (January Jones) suddenly doesn't recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity. Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by assassins, he finds himself alone, tired, and on the run.
On his own in a strange country, Martin seeks aid from an unlikely and reluctant source (Diane Kruger) as he plunges headlong into a deadly mystery that will force him to question his sanity, his identity, and just how far he's willing to go to uncover the truth.
Collet-Serra’s prior work (horror films House of Wax and Orphan) succeeded financially in theaters but opened to mostly negative reviews. The horror genre is known for delivering commercial successes in the face of negative reviews and Unknown, a character-driven dramatic-thriller, could have been a disastrous departure for Collet-Serra.
The director takes a few pages from his horror-film roots with a couple jump-scares and an excessive blur of close action-shots that border on nauseating – as opposed to immersive, which was no doubt the intent.
However, for the most part, Collet-Serra delivers with a competent balance using exhilarating action sequences while allowing Liam Neeson room to play to his strengths as an intense but capable everyman pushed to the limit.
There are a number of explosive set pieces in Unknown, but the entire movie hinges on Neeson’s ability to deliver a performance that capitalizes on the character’s confusion - while still keeping him relatable. For the most part Neeson comes through, providing subtle but authentic human reactions to the more character-focused scenes in the film. As a result, the audience can see who Neeson’s character is (i.e. what kind of person he is) – even if it’s unclear whether or not the details about his identity are accurate.
However, despite a number of on-the-nose discussions about whether a person is, or is not defined, by their identity - ex. Gina (Diane Kruger’s character) is an illegal immigrant and Ernst Jürgen (played by Bruno Ganz) is an ex-member of the East German secret police - the ultimate revelation of the film entirely side-steps making sense of what this particular series of events, regarding the identity of Dr. Martin Harris, really means for Neeson’s character.
Similarly, Unknown’s supporting roles also fall a bit short of delivering the depth that a more experienced filmmaker than Collet-Serra might have been able to draw out. In addition to Neeson, the cast is filled with talented actors and actresses including January Jones (Mad Men and X-Men: First Class) as Elizabeth Harris, Aidan Quinn (Jonah Hex) as the imposter Martin B, and, as previously mentioned, Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds and National Treasure) as the Taxi-driver turned accomplice Gina. That said, despite all of this talent, the limited focus of the film doesn’t allow much room for the actors to make their characters anything more than mostly stagnant clichés.
The overarching story also suffers from the limited focus of the film. Sure the audience is only shown the events through the confused filter of Dr. Harris, and certain aspects of the story are kept ambiguous to serve the greater mysteries of the plot, but even when the dust has settled we’re only left with a vague and fractured understanding of the larger conflict at hand. As a result, not only is it difficult to understand how Harris gets from point A to Point B as a character, but a rising heap of plot holes, which were peppered throughout the story for the purpose of misdirection, undermine the integrity of the film’s final revelations.
However, where the film falls short in terms of overarching story and character, Unknown makes up for it in tense and riveting action set-pieces - as well as a competent series of twists and U-turns that will keep moviegoers guessing – and on the edge of their seats.
Even before the film was screened for critics, many cinephiles were already comparing Unknown to Pierre Morel’s 2008 international action-thriller Taken (read our review), which also required Neeson to balance an emotional performance with tense action - as a man scrambling from clue to clue in order to unravel a larger conspiracy. Beyond both films' reliance on Liam Neeson and one-word titles, it’s a fair comparison and Taken fans will find a similarly edgy and clever premise in Unknown.
Despite a limited scope that leaves a lot to be desired in the way of characterization and overarching story implications, Unknown succeeds as an exciting film that most moviegoers will easily enjoy from scene to scene – even if they leave with a somewhat ambiguous understanding of the story that was going on outside of Martin Harris as well as the internal evolution of Neeson’s character.
If you’re still on the fence about Unknown, check out the trailer below:
Unknown is now playing in wide release.