After the surprise box office success of Taken in 2008, it makes financial sense for studios to attempt to replicate that formula and capitalize on the revitalized star power of Liam Neeson. Such is the case with Unknown; though the movie truly isn’t much like Taken at all, that won’t stop WB from marketing the film as if it’s a spiritual sequel. Questionable marketing aside (there could be – and probably is – an entire blog devoted to questionable marketing), Unknown is a solid thriller that cashes in on that oh-so-catchy hook: mistaken identity.
Instead of Taken, a more apt comparison would be to Roman Polanski’s 1988 movie Frantic. In that film, Harrison Ford plays an American businessman visiting Paris, and when his wife disappears from his hotel room, he goes on a citywide search to track her down (with not much help from the bureaucratic authorities). In Unknown, Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a biotech researcher who experiences a car crash in Berlin and whose wife no longer recognizes him after the accident. Not content with simply a difficult situation for its protagonist, this film takes the concept to the next level – there’s another man in town who says HE is the real Martin Harris, and this guy actually has all of the correct documentation (Neeson’s passport was lost before the accident). Director Jaume Collet-Serra cribs from Polanski’s twisty thriller in more ways than one, most notably utilizing the same panicked tone and building a paranoid atmosphere that helps us identify with the protagonist’s struggle. (This same atmospheric world-building was used recently to great effect in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.)
There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about Unknown; it’s a fast-paced puzzle that is simply a good time at the movies. The performances are satisfying: Neeson strikes an admirable balance of stoicism and hysteria, January Jones is unobjectionable as Martin’s “is-she, isn’t-she” wife, Diane Kruger gets to flaunt an accent as a Bosnian cab driver pulled into the fray, and even Frank Langella makes an appearance to do some damage control near the end. He and Jones have perhaps the most thankless roles in the film, but the structure and pacing keep the plot flowing so quickly that their shortcomings (along with the script’s) don’t seem too offensive.
Unknown asks a lot from the audience in the realm of believability, especially as the story progresses and the twists are revealed. I’m not talking only about the physicality, either – the basic building blocks of the plot are so flimsy that it just takes a whisper to knock them over. The pacing moves quick enough so as not to allow us to stop and consider the true silliness of the scenario, but not quick enough so that we don’t roll our eyes a bit in the process. It’s so much easier to excuse small flaws in a well-executed movie like this than in something like Just Go With It, a cinematic disaster in every sense of the phrase.
Contrary to the marketing campaign, this movie is much more of a straight-forward drama than an action extravaganza. It comes down to this: if you’re looking for Liam Neeson kicking ass, Unknown probably isn’t your best bet. There’s a great car chase set piece in the middle of the film and a nice fight sequence at the end, but the infrequency of the action makes the movie feel much more adult than its contemporaries, many of which have seemingly been trying to emulate video games instead of actual films. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a contemporary thriller that plays on notions of identity and the potential breakdown of reality as seen through the viewpoint of a single character, this is your solution.
The film was just released yesterday, and already Collet-Serra has used its success (or perceived success) as a stepping stone to more projects: he’s got a Dracula project called Harker set up at WB, will direct a new television pilot for ABC called “The River”, and just signed on to direct a movie called Red Circle, which is a remake of a 1970 French heist film. I’ve got high hopes for the latter; hopefully the director’s ability to bring the mistaken identity genre to the modern day will translate well to the heist genre (one of my favorites). Sound off in the comments section if you’ve had a chance to check this one out – what did you think? Until next time…