It’s all about the payoff.
When a movie has an interesting premise (which Unknown certainly does) it’s often not so much about the set up as it is about how it’s resolved. And I’m pretty sure you won’t see the ending of Unknown coming, even as various clues are dropped along the way.
Liam Neeson is Dr. Martin Harris, a biotech researcher who is arriving in snowy Berlin for a big, international conference along with his wife Liz (January Jones). When they get to the hotel, Liz goes to check-in while he takes care of their bags. Noticing his briefcase was left curbside at the airport, Martin hops back into a taxi without so much as a word to his wife (huh?) and heads back. While in the car, he tries to call Liz on his cell, but he can’t get a signal (in downtown Berlin. Huh?) He then gets into an accident, and the cab careens off a bridge, knocking him into a four-day coma. When he comes to, he has no ID (it’s in the briefcase), but he remembers his name and that he’s supposed to be at the conference. When he arrives, though, Liz looks at him like he has three heads. She doesn’t know who he is and, better yet, she presents her husband, Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn).
What starts out as a WTF moment for Martin (the Neeson one, not the Quinn one) quickly becomes a high-suspense action/thriller as bodies start dropping, and bad guys start tracking him around the city.
Alone, without any resources in a big, foreign city, he tracks down the accident-prone taxi driver (Diane Kruger) and convinces her to help get his life back (or, at the very least, figure out what’s going on). He also enlists the help of a former East German Stasi officer (Bruno Ganz), who starts putting the pieces together, too.
Neeson, who proved his talents as a bona fide action star in 2008’s Taken, is equal parts Dr. Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford in The Fugitive) and Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, but he never looks out of his element. He plays Martin brilliantly, first as a lost man and then as a man driven to figure out what the heck is going on (and fix it). Kruger and Jones are both as luminous as always, and they each provide adequate support in their roles.
It’s Ganz, though, who really steals the show. Famous nowadays due to the fact that his portrayal of Hitler in 2004’s Downfall is the one that’s used in all those YouTube “Hitler is upset at…” videos, he brings a welcome element of calm (and class) to the proceedings.
I won’t give anything away, but suffice to say that the twist in Unknown is not what you’re thinking. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) does a superb job at ramping up the suspense, and the script by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, (based on a novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert), is fast-moving and, frankly, quite gripping. Yes, it has plenty of holes (along with the aforementioned ‘huh?’ moments), but it never approaches the preposterous-ness that some critics are claiming, and, by and large, it works… at least in the moment.
The biggest problem is inherent in the fact that you’ll start backtracking once you know the ‘answer’. In retrospect, bits and pieces seem a little too convenient, and others become real head-scratchers. As with so many (too many) movies these days, there are several issues and moments that could have been resolved by a well-placed bullet or a simple conversation, but there’s nothing so egregious that it ruins the experience of Unknown as a whole.