You know how infuriating it is when you’re convinced that you’ve left your house keys on the sideboard but your other half airily dismisses your frustrations and attempts to convince you that you’ve probably dropped them down the side of the sofa? It’s incredibly annoying. So imagine if they not only denied any knowledge of your house keys but also demanded to know who you were and what you were doing in the house that they share with their husband/wife. You’d be bloody livid! So spare a though for Liam Neeson who loses more than his keys in this hugely enjoyable, if slightly flawed, action thriller.
Neeson plays Dr Martin Harris, newly arrived in Berlin for a biotechnology conference, along with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones). However, he leaves an important briefcase behind at the airport and so, before you can say ‘Er…don’t you think you should tell your wife where you’re going?’, he jumps in a cab and sets off to retrieve it. However, the cab is involved in an accident and he is only saved from drowning thanks to the efforts of the driver (Diane Kruger), who soon does a runner owing to the fact that she’s an illegal immigrant. Four days later, he regains consciousness and after piecing together why he’s there, sets off for the hotel to tell his wife that he’s alive. Only, when he gets there, she doesn’t know him. In fact, not only does she deny to the hotel security that he is her husband, she also introduces them to a man who claims that he is her husband (Aidan Quinn). Thing is, he’s called Dr Martin Harris as well. So, is Neeson’s Dr Harris losing his mind or is something far more sinister going on?
Films like this rely on the ingenuity of the plot and if it either doesn’t convince or is too obviously telegraphed then the film is doomed. In this case, I didn’t work out what was happening prior to the moment when all is finally revealed and I’ll wager that 99% of the rest of you won’t either. By that point I’d enjoyed a couple of high octane chase scenes, several bouts of no-nonsense fisticuffs, and also had the chance to appreciate the superb Bruno Ganz as a private detective attempting to help Martin figure it all out.
Unknown is the sort of film that Harrison Ford would have been cast in 20 years ago, relying as it does on a protagonist who you feel is vulnerable enough to worry about but tough enough to kick some arse when the occasion demands it. Both of these are aspects of a character that Neeson can comfortably convey and as he and Kruger stumbled around Berlin, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, I couldn’t help hoping that it would all work out happily in the end for the big lug.
In her first big film role, January Jones brings the same kind of cool detachment to her part as she does to that of Betsy in Mad Men. To be fair to her it’s a difficult role, as much of her character’s behaviour may puzzle initially and, as a result, fail to convince. However, once you know what was going on it’s probable that you’ll see her performance in a completely different light.
Unknown does have its problems, ones which can too frequently break the cinematic spell, destroy ‘the moment’ and make you aware that you’re watching the latest big budget, Hollywood thriller. There is some clunking dialogue for instance, the sort that sounds like, well, exactly the sort that you only ever really hear in big budget Hollywood thrillers. Then there’s the pacing of the film which sometimes flags just when you’re ready for it to put the pedal to the metal. And there are some coincidences that stretch suspension of disbelief once too often, even for a film operating within the conventions of a genre that has never been shy of tempting incredulity.
But this is fundamentally a film thats main purpose is to entertain, surprise, and thrill its audience and I have to admit that, for most of its running time, those were the precise effects it had on me. It boasts a winning cast, some great set pieces and enough twists and turns to keep most people guessing. Its plotting isn’t so tight that I would ever label it overly intelligent but it was clever enough to have me going back over its story for the hour or so after seeing it and fitting the pieces together with a nod of quiet satisfaction.
It isn’t up there with the very best of its type (The Bourne Ultimatum for instance). But Unknown does offer up enough thrills and spills to be worth your time if what you’re looking for is pure escapist entertainment in the company of a likeable and sympathetic lead. Persuade yourself to embrace its logic and you may just find yourself on the edge of your seat by the time its tense and thrilling conclusion rolls round.