Liam Neeson is a pretty heavyweight actor who has been making movies for over three decades. His more prominent roles were in films like Schindler’s List, Rob Roy and Michael Collins (playing the titular character in all three) as well as offering support in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (as the woefully under-developed Qui-Gon Jinn) and providing a suitable nemesis in Batman Begins. I’d never really regarded him as a particularly noteworthy action star until 2008’s Taken, which made the most of his towering 6ft 4” physique, having him throw his weight around in a basic but remarkably efficient revenge narrative that felt like a cross between Denzel’s Washington’s Man on Fire and any one of the Transporter movies – in a good way. I’m really looking forward to the upcoming sequel (which was greenlit late last year); Taken may not be heavyweight brain-fodder, but it was bloody entertaining nonetheless. In the meantime his career has, understandably, suddenly gone in a more action-orientated direction. So much so that fans often expect the man who was once Oscar-Nominated, and who made his name playing famous historical figures, to now dish out Bourne-style blows on a regular basis. His part as Hannibal in last year’s throwaway adaptation of The A-Team merely compounded the issue. Then, earlier this year, we got Unknown. And everything from the posters to the trailers promoted the film as something of a cross between Taken and Bourne: Liam Neeson loses his memory, and has to kick some ass on his way to getting it back. Or something. Well, what could possibly be wrong with that?
Dr. Martin Harris is on his way to a biotechnology conference in Berlin with his wife Liz but, just as he’s about to check into his hotel, he realises that a piece of luggage has been left at the airport and leaves his wife to go back and retrieve it. Four days later he wakes up from a coma only to find that his wife, still at the conference, is there with another man – a man who purports to also be Dr. Martin Harris. Desperately confused, he initially tries to confront them, but, threatened with being arrested, he is forced to take to the streets in an attempt to piece together what exactly happened after he left his wife at the hotel. But his paranoia becomes overwhelming – Is it a grand conspiracy? Are there people following him? Or is he just losing his mind?
Unknown has quite an interesting premise, and milks it for all its worth. Then milks it some more. In fact, when all is said and done, it relies so heavily on clever puzzle plotting that it almost becomes impossible for there to ever be a satisfactory answer – so it’s no wonder that the third act twist and action-orientated conclusion are massively anticlimactic. It’s as if someone came up with a clever idea, and then left it in the hands of five other, less imaginative writers, who offered up a dozen different ideas, not all of which gel particularly well together. Unknown sets up such a clever premise – arguably pretty unique in how it is built up (despite the comparisons to numerous other movies) – and then tries so hard to be unpredictable that it ends up becoming not just difficult to solve, but actually impossible. The ending doesn’t work. Accepting all of the improbable moments along the way – which is hard enough to do – you get to an ending that some may have even guessed before, but dismissed because it doesn’t fit the clues. And, shamefully, arguably the most revealing sequence, where the two men both purporting to be ‘Dr. Martin Harris’ say exactly the same words in unison (each vying to prove that they are the real deal), drifts into farce. Rather than being a clever, pivotal moment, it’s unintentionally comical, almost taking you out of the movie.
Liam Neeson tries desperately to hold on to the reins, and it’s a testament to his sheer presence that he still makes for a captivating protagonist, even when everything goes off the rails; but he’s also both a blessing and a curse to this production. You see, the trouble is that there are just too many similarities between Unknown and Taken – at least in terms of the way in which it has been marketed – and Unknown has a very different tempo, so those expecting Taken Part 2, or anything like it, will be strongly disappointed because it’s much more like the 80s Harrison Ford thriller Frantic. Who can blame audiences for drawing the comparison either? – as stated, everything from the teaser poster onwards has ‘Taken’ written all over it. I've even included comparisons of the respective poster artwork on the next page (by the way, Neeson never carries a gun in this movie, as it shows on the poster), and even the extra features yet further cement the theory with a featurette entitled "Liam Neeson: Known Action Hero". And where Taken was about Liam Neeson running around Europe desperately trying to get his daughter back, getting into fights and car chases along the way; Unknown purports to follow an extremely similar route – Liam Neeson running around Europe desperately trying to get his wife and/or life back, getting into fights and car chases along the way. But whilst there is one mildly engaging chase, the action is generally not really up to scratch, the fights in particular coming across as remarkably dull – shot so frenetically that you don’t even know who is hitting who. And they don't even fit in with the script once you know the twist. Seriously, it really feels like the guy who wrote the ending just isn’t the same bloke who came up wrote the first two thirds.
Accompanying Neeson we get a few other familiar faces, although most of them falter under the weight of such a preposterous story. X-Men: First Class’s own Emma Frost – January Jones (also from Mad Men) – plays Neeson’s strangely forgetful wife, having little to do but strut around in gorgeous evening gowns. That is, until the final act, when she too suddenly becomes intent upon doing something completely illogical. Aiden Quinn plays the other Dr. Martin Harris, and I haven’t seen him in anything for years – and here is the reason for that. Again, see the ending to find out just how silly this bit of casting was. Then we get Diane “Inglourious Basterds” Kruger, in the Emmanuelle Seigner role from Frantic, playing the seemingly innocent taxi driver who gets embroiled in the whole thing. Cameo parts from Frank Langella (The Box) and Bruno Ganz (who simply became Hitler in Downfall) don’t improve the picture a great deal, although the latter does, arguably, get the only truly interesting role in the whole film.
All in all I couldn’t help but be disappointed by Unknown – it’s promised so much with its exciting, clever premise; and yet squandered all that potential with what is, ultimately, extremely derivative, predictable and unquestionably illogical plotting, throwing in ideas from plenty of better movies – Total Recall, The Long Kiss Goodnight and the aforementioned Frantic (and worse movies too: The Tourist) – but ending up making no sense as a result. Another stylish, well-directed, professional production which just does not live up to expectations. Wait for Taken 2 instead.