Last time we saw Liam Neeson tear through Europe with a grimace and a gun, it was to reclaim his abducted daughter in the extremely satisfying revenge thriller Taken. This time round, in the mildly satisfying mystery thriller Unknown, he’s out to reclaim something even more personal: his own identity.
The Irish actor plays Dr. Martin Harris, a biochemist who is in Berlin for a scientific conference with his wife Liz (January Jones of TV’s Mad Men fame). Upon realising he has left his briefcase and passport at the airport, Martin leaves his wife at the hotel and hails down a cabbie named Gina (Diane Kruger; Inglorious Basterds), who accidentally plunges the car into a river whilst speeding back to the airport. Martin’s noggin gets a good ol’ knock in the process, and upon awakening four days later in hospital, is told he might have experienced some brain trauma. Martin, however, just wants to see his wife, so he checks himself out and returns to the hotel. He confronts Liz with open arms, yet she pushes him away, claiming to have no idea who he is. If that’s not strange enough, she’s also arm in arm with another man. His name? Dr. Martin Harris, a biochemist who is in town for a scientific conference with his wife Liz. And he has the papers to prove it.
At this point, one would expect Martin (the Liam Neeson one) to be absolutely livid; you can bet that if someone stole my identity, and that identity was married to someone as ridiculously good looking as January Jones, I’d be out for blood. Yet Neeson just looks slightly inconvenienced by the whole ordeal — as if he spilt something on his shirt and now has to go change it. He remains just as blasé throughout, struggling to bring the same level of intensity to his performance that made Taken such a rush. January Jones, too, is ice cold as Liz, although it’s hard to tell how much of it is deliberate. We’re left to ponder; is she being threatened to cooperate, or is she in on the whole thing? Perhaps she really doesn’t know him? Perhaps the other guy is, and always has been, Dr. Martin Harris?
It’s these questions that ultimately keep Unknown afloat, regardless of how silly the answers might be. The story by novelist Didier Van Cauwelaert is constantly at odds with credibility, but it’s still a solid Hitchcockian thriller that delivers a number of entertaining twists and turns. To the credit of the screenwriters, all the pieces fit together far more satisfyingly they did in the other identity thriller The Tourist, meaning you won’t feel cheated by the big reveal when it finally arrives.
What Unknown lacks, however, is a reason to care emotionally. Compared to Taken, where a father’s desperate bid to rescue his daughter elicits immediate sympathy, we approach Martin’s situation with more caution; he’s a man without an identity, and thus, he’s difficult to identify with. Part of the blame rests with director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House of Wax), whose heavy hand leaves the cast looking uncomfortable in each other’s presence, resulting in a number of stilted and insincere exchanges. The French filmmaker is clearly more concerned with developing the story than he is the characters, and staging the action than he is the drama. That doesn’t make Unknown a bad film by any stretch, but it does, fittingly enough, make it a forgettable one.