Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger & January Jones
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Distributed by: Optimum Releasing
Release Date: March 2011
Running Time: 113 mins
Synopsis: Dr Martin Harris wakes up after a car accident to find his wife doesn’t recognise him and that another man has taken his identity. Ignored by the authorities and hunted by assassins, he finds himself alone and on the run. Helped by a young woman he plunges into a deadly mystery that forces him to question his sanity.
Ever since his iconic turn as Bryan Mills in the Taken trilogy, Liam Neeson has been one of my favourite ‘action hero’ actors. His authoritative screen presence and gritty Irish drawl distinguishes him from the traditional muscle-bound action heroes, giving his performances a more realistic and subdued approach – even during the most explosive of action sequences. Released just three years after his breakout success in Taken, Unknown is the first of four action-thriller collaborations between Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra and serves to solidify the actor in his new role as an action movie leading man.
Whereas Taken was an adrenaline-fuelled hunt for his missing child, Unknown focuses more on mystery and paranoia as the amnesiac Dr. Martin Harris tries to discover the truth behind his life and the imposter who has taken his place. Stylistically though, the film does share some similarities with Taken; both films are set in European cities and are directed by European directors, giving them a very different tone to the typical USA-set thrillers. Neeson also plays Harris remarkably close to Bryan Mills; just as driven and obsessed, albeit without the same “particular set of skills”. It’s become the default setting for Neeson’s action roles, although to be honest, most action heroes are usually one-note performances.
The two leading ladies supporting Neeson in Unknown are quite different from each other; Diane Kruger plays Gina, a sympathetic taxi driver and one of the few to believe his story. A likeable confidante, Kruger anchors the film with her humanity, showcasing the collateral damage of the action as her life is turned upside-down by Martin Harris’ involvement. On the flip-side is January Jones as Harris’ wife, Liz, who claims not to recognise him after his accident. Jones is utterly convincing and unreadable, making the viewer question the validity of everything they’d witnessed previously. The film does a great job at maintaining the central mystery as to whether someone has stolen Harris’ identity or not, and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep it from being predictable.
Unknown feels like a modern take on the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, particularly North by Northwest, and Neeson does a great job as the man at the heart of the conspiracy attempting to unravel the mystery surrounding him. There are a smattering of action sequences throughout the movie, but aside from an impressive car chase through the streets of Berlin, it is a relatively low-key affair with the focus more on suspense and paranoia instead of over-the-top shootouts. With more focus on plot than action, it is vitally important that the story makes sense within its own universe; midway through the film, I was worried that the events of the film were becoming too implausible, but the final twist reframes the film and all the puzzles pieces satisfyingly fall into place perfectly.
At times, Unknown reminded me of the 1988 film Frantic, another great Hitchcockian thriller also about an American (this time, Harrison Ford) isolated in a European city. It’s a great film and there were a lot of moments that were very similar such as; searching for missing luggage, befriending a local girl to help solve the mystery and the protagonist climbing out of the window to avoid assassins. Unknown manages to modernise the format with Collet-Serra’s neo-noir direction, giving Berlin a cold-blue feel that feels hostile to Neeson’s alienated loner. Unlike Frantic, the film doesn’t delve too deeply into the grimy underbelly of its European city, instead opting to portray Berlin as a sterile, clinical environment. The inclusion of the former Stasi-investigator Jürgen adds a bit more personality to proceedings, but this plot thread feels under-utilised and largely used for exposition purposes.
Overall, Unknown is another great showcase for Neeson’s gruff anti-hero persona, although it comes in the form of a post-modern spy thriller as opposed to the frenetic gunfights that fuelled Taken across its swift 90-minute runtime. A modern-day Hitchcock thriller viewed through a neo-noir lens, Unknown frequently subverts audience expectations and delivers a satisfying treat for Liam Neeson fans. Having already seen Non-Stop, the second film in the Neeson/Collet-Serra partnership, it is clear that the director and actor work extremely well together and their action thrillers are reliably enjoyable romps. With Run All Night and The Commuter still on my ‘to-watch’ list, I hope to complete the set soon.