Published: February 23, 2011
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
There should be a cutoff for shower scenes, and Liam Neeson should abide by it. Sure, we only glimpse his back or shoulder—but it’s the principle. He’s too old, and you can tell.
In Unknown, Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) arrives in Berlin for a biotechnology conference, startlingly young wife Liz (January Jones, Grace Kelly’s ice queen equivalent) in tow. When he forgets a mysterious briefcase at the airport, Martin hops into a taxi, wordlessly leaving Liz at the hotel. Berlin traffic and reckless driving soon collide to force Martin’s taxi to plummet, slow-mo, off a bridge into a river. With determination only an Eastern European could have, the Bosnian taxi driver (Diane Kruger) shatters a window underwater and pulls Martin to safety. He promptly goes into a coma.
An amnesiac Martin comes to four days later. After spotting the headliners of his conference on TV, he remembers enough and heads back to the hotel, expecting to find a panicked wife. Instead, Liz eyes him frostily and produces a new husband (Aidan Quinn), parading as Dr. Martin Harris. Preposterous, Martin barks. But the new Dr. Harris whips out a driver’s license and wedding photo to prove it. Hotel security steps in. Even a Google search confirms Quinn is Dr. Harris. Martin’s really up a creek; what’s more, he’s being followed by shifty Europeans in black SUVs.
Thus begins an identity hunt chock-full of cheap thrills: car accidents (there are more), eye-gouging, bloodied bodies, and an explosion. In his quest, Martin enlists the aid of the cab driver and an ex-Stasi officer (Bruno Ganz) who sounds more like Marlon Brando with a frog in his throat.
It’s hard to pinpoint when Neeson decided to choose roles more suitable for Steven Seagal. Taken certainly marked the apex of his badass-ery, but that movie works because sex-trafficking kidnappers necessitate his show of old-man strength. In this movie, Neeson’s character struggles to steal back his babe from the equally wrinkled Quinn. Moreover, here he lacks the finesse of Taken’s ex-spy. He hides on a shingled roof, copying a move from Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. But it doesn’t impress.
This movie parallels The Bourne Identity in several ways, least of which in its attention to current political issues. In comparison to Bourne, though, Unknown is clunky. It tosses terrorism and bioengineered corn in the hopper and churns out a genre flick with direction that gives you a headache. Jaume Collet-Serra (who helmed Orphan) mixes extreme closeups, shallow focus, and rapid cuts in such a way that makes you want to rip the camera from his hands and zoom out. It may be standard action-movie fare, but at least this viewer felt like the director was pushing her head into the screen. In an absurd point-of-view shot, when Martin emerges from his coma, we find fake eyelids blinking over the camera lens. Is that smart or just schlock? It’s unknown.