Review: “Unknown”

The story owes much to Hitchcock and the look much to the first ‘Bourne’ film, but Jaume Collet-Serra’s latest film is a far more drab affair that’s engaging at certain points but often for the wrong reasons.

The hiring of Liam Neeson as the lead in this Euro-set film has immediately drawn comparisons to “Taken”. There however, Neeson’s trademark serious protagonist was an anchor amidst all the energetic fist-flying and often silly plot shenanigans. “Unknown” is a far more serious-minded affair, which turns Neeson’s often uninterested performance into something of a dead weight.

Neeson plays Martin Harris, a biotech doctor visiting Berlin for an important summit with his beautiful wife (January Jones), After being caught up in a car accident, he awakens to find another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity while his own memory is somewhat hazy.

It’s a decent enough premise, the early scenes rush by though there is ultimately a reason for that. Admirable restraint is shown at first as the either angry or distraught Neeson tries to prove he is whom he says he is. Those around him sympathise at first, but ultimately disregard him as the evidence mounts against his claims.

As the film’s scribes based this on a novel, there’s a definite sense of more plot machinations and character depth that have been either excised or rushed through. By the last act it feels like they’ve lost the plot somewhat, Collet-Serra’s track record of twisted lunacy taking over the proceedings though never hitting the sheer joyous insanity that was the big reveal of “Orphan”.

Here the solution is more familiar albeit still implausible, and it is bluntly hammered home by Frank Langella’s sinister yet polite routine which feels like he stepped straight off the set of “The Box”. Other performances are all over the spectrum. January Jones is astonishingly flat, delivering lines in a way that literally seem as if Betty Draper on “Mad Men” is the only role she’s capable of. Aidan Quinn is fine but hasn’t much to do as the impostor Martin Harris.

On the flipside Bruno Ganz’s world-weary ex-Stasi detective is a welcome respite and practically steals the whole movie. Diane Kruger does well as a hard-working waitress who becomes caught up in Neeson’s situation, their scenes together in her little apartment are particularly real and well done.

Many of the smaller roles are local German actors who all handle their parts with ease. The film itself seems oddly adamant and sincere at times, and yet there are moments where it’s unafraid of indulging in its absurdity – meaning it’s never really satisfying on either front. The action beats, when they hit, are fine but in the end this is only a serviceable thriller – better than the fare that generally opens this time of year, but ultimately forgettable.