With Liam Neeson, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content. 113 minutes.
There’s only so much to tell of the plot of UNKNOWN before you’re in spoilers territory, so let’s get that out of the way. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a scientific conference. When his briefcase is misplaced, he hurries back to the airport to retrieve it, only to get in a car accident and ending up in a coma.
Four days later, he wakes up in a Berlin hospital without identification, Elizabeth nowhere to be seen. He checks himself out, goes to the hotel, and not only does Elizabeth not recognize him, but her husband Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) wants to know who this stranger is. Is the first Harris going crazy, or is this all part of a paranoid plot that will take the entire movie to unravel? You’ll just have to see the film and find out for yourself.
Neeson has always been a serious actor, but in recent years he’s been cutting an interesting path through action films as different as “Batman Begins” and “Taken.” This is more like the latter but with a much more complex plot that will keep you guessing. Since he has the acting chops his anguish at finding himself in a world where he doesn’t exist – or where someone else exists in his place – comes across as real pain, not merely a plot device.
Although the film boasts a solid cast, the only other one who gets to sink his teeth into his role is veteran German actor Bruno Ganz. He plays Jurgen, a retired member of the East German secret police who now works as a private investigator. When Harris is at a loss as to how to prove his identity – and with the discovery of mysterious people who want to prevent him from doing so – he turns to Jurgen for help. The only other person he can rely on is Gina (Diane Kruger), an illegal immigrant who was the driver of the cab when he got into the accident. Think of the blonde heroines in Hitchcock movies who come to the aid of the hero-on-the-run and you get the idea.
Credit for the deliciously convoluted plot has to go to French novelist Didier Van Cauwelaert on whose book the movie is based, and the screenwriting team of Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, who have worked primarily in television. The execution, however, is the work of director Jaume Collet-Serra, who seems to be developing a slick style that was barely apparent in his first big screen offering, the cheesy 2005 remake of “House Of Wax.” However, in 2009, he made “Orphan,” a “child from hell” thriller that also relied on keeping things moving without giving away the third act surprises. He does it again here, offering up a polished thriller that should satisfy moviegoers craving both action and mystery.
“Unknown” is no work of art, nor does it pretend to be. It’s a fast-paced entertainment that quickly grabs you and then never lets go.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.