If you’re expecting this film to live up to the expectations put in place by 2008’s stealth hit Taken, you’ll be disappointed. Although Unknown is a stand-alone film albeit with a similar gritty European setting, even a good cast and a fast pace see it fail to hit the heights set by Neeson’s first action offering.
We join Dr Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) as they head to a biotechnology conference in Berlin. But a mistake at the airport means that Dr Harris’s briefcase doesn’t get put into their taxi. Normally this wouldn’t be a huge problem, but this briefcase is very important. So important, in fact, that Martin left it with the luggage rather than carrying it with him – obviously.
So when they get to the hotel, Martin has to rush back to get his case, but the taxi driven by Gina (Diane Kruger) swerves to avoid an accident and plunges off the bridge into a river, giving poor Martin a severe head trauma. On the plus side, Gina saves his life by dragging him out of the river, but then makes herself scarce. When Martin wakes up after a four-day coma, he can’t remember much, but he rushes back to the hotel to find his wife cavorting with another man. But wait, it’s not just any other man; it’s someone who is calling himself Dr Martin Harris, and to make matters worse, his wife doesn’t recognise him.
As we all would by this point, Martin is beginning to wonder whether this is really happening or if he’s just gone nuts. But, helpfully, just as things are at their bleakest, a hitman tries to kill him – which makes him realise he may have been right after all.
The rest of the film is a journey through car chases, explosions, fights and a glaring lack of any real suspense that renders the experience somewhat impotent. There is still a mystery to be unravelled, but between punching yourself in the face to remain interested and wondering if January Jones is capable of any emotion other than cool detachment, it’s impossible to engage enough with any of the characters to really care about the ending.
One character who is worth a mention is Bruno Ganz’s ex-Stasi officer Ernst Jurgen, who helps Harris in his attempts to figure out what is happening. He provides an amusing distraction as well as a not-so-subtle comment on the ability of the German people to keep on going despite their past. Although having said that, the scene in a club with a pounding 80s dance soundtrack does little to dispel other stereotypes.
Oh, and wait for the twist. You know, the fairly obvious moment that you saw coming from the start of the film when all is revealed and you’re actually sick in the aisle at the depressing stupidity of it all. However, since you’re expecting it, the twist is a rather comic one – not because it’s meant to be but because it displays such an astonishing lack of imagination on the part of the writers that it is genuinely funny.
Unknown is not a terrible film, it looks good and the acting is, for the most part, decent. But the problem lies in the fact that it’s a thriller that never reaches a level of intensity or drama that could lead to it justifiably being called thrilling. The film sets itself up as smart, but at the end all you get left with is a feeling of dissatisfaction and a list in your head of ways that it could have been better.