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Review: ‘Unknown’ Is Familiar And Ridiculous But Occasionally Fun

By  · Published on February 18th, 2011

Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his daughter wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a conference, but as they enter their hotel he realizes he’s forgotten his briefcase back at the airport. He hops in a cab to retrieve it and instead crashes into a river, dies for a couple minutes, and winds up in a coma. He awakens a few days later and discovers another man (Aidan Quinn) has stepped into his shoes and stolen his identity. And his wife is going along with it. No one believes he is who he says he is, all of the evidence points to the contrary, and not even a very particular set of skills may be enough to prove otherwise.

It’s Taken meets Frantic (by way of a handful of titles that would surely ruin the film’s main reveal were they to be named) as Harris is forced to scour his way through Berlin in search of the truth with only a troubled woman (Diane Kruger) and an ex-East German Stasi agent (Bruno Ganz) on his side. Has the world gone mad? Has he? Or is there something far more sinister at play here? The film builds and maintains a fairly suspenseful mystery complete with a handful of solidly staged action sequences before eventually revealing the secret… at which point the entire thing gets lost in a stink cloud of ridiculous and convoluted storytelling.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s last film was Orphan, a thriller whose third act went from solidly creepy to laughably ridiculous with an incredibly stupid twist revelation. Judging by his follow-up it appears Collet-Serra has found his niche as this film follows the almost exact same pattern. That’s a dig on his closing abilities, but it’s also a compliment to his other film making skills. Unknown looks quite good, and he knows his way around a set-piece. He also manages to balance the real world with Harris’ paranoid view extremely well as every stranger becomes a potential threat. A walk down a bustling Berlin street becomes a minefield of uncertainty as Harris wonders about this person and that person, a glance that becomes a stare, footsteps behind him that sound too close. Collet-Serra also manages to salvage some explosive fun when his film begins falling into ludicrous pieces.

Further plot specifics will be avoided here as the twists and turns are half of the film’s fun, but screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Simon Cromwell deserve some credit for the initial setup which mixes elements from several other films into a solid puzzle. The corner they paint themselves into though is a challenge they can’t overcome. They try, and that attempt involves the kitchen sink, but it results in a weak diffusion of tension and mystery by way of over explanation, repetitive flashbacks, and a plot that makes little to no sense.

Ridiculous revelations aside the film’s biggest problem actually stems from a surprising source. Neeson is here for the paycheck and fails to acknowledge that he’s making a goofy ass flick and not some hard edged thriller. He plays it all so seriously, but that doesn’t mean he’s bringing his A-game as an actor as he just as often appears to be going through the motions. Less surprising but more of an offender is Jones’ terribly flat performance. It may very well be the only thing flat about her, but good god she is one note and charisma-free here.

As bad as those two are they’re almost balanced out by Kruger and Ganz. Kruger deserves far better than second string in a film like this, but she still manages to breathe some life into the movie whenever she’s onscreen. She’s charming, witty, and shows more emotion in her supporting role than Neeson and Jones combined. Ganz is much the same, although not as attractive, and he brings real personality to his small role.

The trailers want audiences to think Unknown is basically Taken 2 (which should actually be out next year), but that’s far from the truth. Where that film hit the ground running with beat-downs, chases, and a singular goal this one is far more of a mystery. It layers in new elements throughout the first two-thirds to both raise the stakes and heighten the suspense and occasionally offers effective action detours as well. But as the pieces finally start to fall into place leading from small revelations to the main one it becomes clear that logic, common sense, and believability have been tossed out the window. Still, the movie manages a bit more fun than the average February release, and if you can get past the twist of Neeson’s character being a fifty year-old midget from Lithuania you should enjoy it just fine.

The Upside: Diane Kruger and Bruno Ganz both shine in smaller roles; main plot twist is fairly unexpected; exciting and well-shot car chase

The Downside: Liam Neeson and January Jones are uninterested and uninteresting; third act becomes ridiculous and convoluted; twist may be unexpected but it’s also far from original; feels repetitive and slow at times

On the Side: If you can only watch one film titled Unknown, make it the one from 2006 that stars Greg Kinnear, Jim Caviezel, Barry Pepper, Jeremy Sisto, Joe Pantoliano, and Peter Stormare.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.