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What do you get when you take Liam Neeson, plop him down in a European capital where he doesn’t speak the language and give him an excuse to kill lots of bad guys? You get either the 2009 surprise hit Taken or the new, also generically titled Unknown — which turns out to be a much more solid thrill ride.
Although it features the same star and, in some ways, the same framework as the Paris-based shoot-’em-up, Unknown swaps the nons for neins by changing the setting to Germany. It also boasts better action set pieces, a handful of convincing cameos and unexpected reversals late in the script. Still, some of its twists are far-fetched, and the final showdown is a predictable combo of hand-to-hand combat and CG pyrotechnics.
The opening bears resemblance to another expat caper, Roman Polanski’s Frantic, with the story following Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife, Liz (January Jones), as they arrive in Berlin for a biotech conference. When Harris heads back to the airport to retrieve his forgotten briefcase, his taxi skids off the road and plunges into a river and he wakes up days later in a hospital with severe memory loss. After some confusion, he makes it back to the hotel, where he finds that another man (Aidan Quinn) has taken his identity. Liz claims not to recognize him at all.
Keeping the action almost entirely glued to Harris’ point of view, director Jaume Collet-Serra provides a steady flow of suspense and a very Polanski-esque feeling of paranoia. Is Harris crazy, or has the world turned upside down? The question extends itself to the closing reels, which manage to offer an explanation that (as in Collet-Serra’s Orphan) might seem like a cop-out, even if they do a decent job justifying all the mayhem.
As he rushes through a snow-covered Berlin, Harris crosses paths with the cab driver from the crash, Gina (Diane Kruger), and a retired Stasi officer, Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), both of whom help him uncover the truth amid a slew of red herrings. While Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) is solid though not always credible as a Bosnian immigrant scraping by, Ganz (Downfall) provides the movie’s most genial supporting role as a crafty Cold War survivor. His ultimate scene is underplayed to perfection.
As in Pierre Morel’s Taken, Neeson proves he can play brawny with a certain stateliness. Here he gives Harris the right combination of punch and pathos, best on display in a scene that has him going from a head-splitting MRI into the hands of a lethal doctor. There’s unfortunately too little, too late of Jones, whose Liz is a take on the Hitchcockian blonde with a hidden agenda, underlined by a Vertigo-like moment set at a contemporary photo show.
Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Labiano give the Berlin exteriors a lively and menacing texture, hopping between the city’s rougher locales and the five-star hotel where the conference takes place (which was filmed at Studio Babelsberg, credited as a co-production company).
Alongside the turn by Ganz, a few short but sweet appearances by Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) and Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) help round out a film that adds local talent and flavor to what could otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill trip abroad.
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