An excellent cast struggles to elevate a spy thriller that thinks it’s smarter than it is
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson: The Next Three Days) is having a bad day. After realizing that he’s left his briefcase, containing vital information for a bio-medical conference he’s speaking in, at the Berlin Airport, he leaves his wife (January Jones: Mad Men) at their hotel to retrieve the case. One cab crash and concussion later, Martin wakes from a four-day coma and returns to his wife and the conference.
Only one problem: His wife doesn’t know him.
In fact, she’s married to another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn: Festival of Lights) who doesn’t take kindly to this marital intrusion.
Determined to prove his identity and win back his life, A-team Martin (that would be Neeson) tracks down his cabbie Gina (Diane Kruger: Inhale) to unravel the conspiracy keeping him from his picture-perfect life.
As Martin digs into the motivations, he and Gina are menaced by the Bluetooth assassin — the movie doesn’t bother to name him so I’m just going to give him a moniker based on the phone that’s constantly wedged into his ear — and menaced at every turn.
Have you seen a Bourne movie? Or perhaps Polanski’s Frantic? The writers are sure hoping you haven’t. But even if you haven’t, if you’ve ever seen a movie before, you’ll probably be able to guess the big twist long before Martin does.
That’s the frustration with Unknown: It’s as if Martin has never seen a movie. Not only that, the knock to the noggin seems to have destroyed his ability for critical reasoning or self-preservation. He lumbers through Berlin demanding answers and seems shocked that this proves dangerous. Even after being chased by Bluetooth and nearly killed, Martin still happily follows the instructions of those involved in the conspiracy.
Surely they wouldn’t try to kill him more than once, right?
Another element dragging Unknown into the dregs of made-for-TV spy thrillers is the inexplicable performance of January Jones as Mrs. Harris. She’s a knockout in all the slinky gowns they drape on her, but her performance is so vacant, one wonders if she realized the camera was rolling. Watching Jones furrow her eyebrows and twitch her head to the side, I began to suspect the big twist was that Martin’s wife was replaced by a malfunctioning robot.
The nonsensical script and Jones’ poor supporting work are a real shame since director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) had all the elements to make a fun and thrilling film. He does make most of the action sequences sing, creating a tense and chaotic car chase through the streets of Berlin. However, with a plot so thin, the action needs to be nonstop or the viewer has time to think about the plot. That is Unknown’s downfall.
Neeson has come into his own as a middle-aged action star, and his towering physique and compelling screen persona make him a likeable and believable leading man. He is so committed that he makes lines like I don’t know who this man is, but you have to arrest him or many people will die! tolerable instead of laughable. It’s not that you care about Martin Harris — he’s an idiot — but you care about Neeson, who’s clearly doing his best with ludicrous material.
Supporting players Bruno Ganz (The Reader) and Kruger earn their keep by distracting from plot pitfalls with interesting character work. Ganz plays a private investigator and former Stasi officer who attempts to help Harris find the truth. He is an unapologetic member of the East German secret police, likely a killer and a spy, yet he’s more sympathetic and interesting than Martin could dream of being. If only he had been conked on the head …
Kruger radiates charisma as Gina, a Girl Friday character with surprising competence. Instead of a shrinking violet in need of help, Gina repeatedly saves our hero from killers. In fact, sweet little Gina racks up a bigger body count than Martin by the end of the film. Girl power!
Unknown isn’t a bad thriller, if you don’t think about this jumble of action clichés or the non-existent plot. But in spite of some excellent supporting work and a valiant effort by Neeson, the film’s logic leaves you feeling concussed.