Film Review: Unknown (2011)

on Thursday, March 10, 2011
Words: Ced Yuen // 'Unknown' (UK Release: 4 March '11)

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella

Since 'Unknown' was announced, the internet has been abuzz with talk of it being another 'Taken', a film responsible for rebranding Liam Neeson as an action-man of sorts. And why not? 'Taken' received a lot of positivity for its high-octane, no-bullshit action and gained Neeson a whole new following, begging for more.

Comparisons are inevitable, considering the way that 'Unknown' has been marketed. Trailers show Neeson once again in a predicament, rampaging his way through another European city. The marketing team might as well have made posters for Taken 2 given the (intentional) lack of originality.

The problem is, 'Unknown' is not that film. With the exception of a few surface similarities, the two films are entirely different.

During a visit to Berlin, Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) has a traffic accident that puts him in a coma. When he returns to normal life, nobody believes he is who he is. His wife (January Jones) doesn't recognise him, and to make things worse, another man has taken his place, doing his work and living his life. With the help of an illegal immigrant (Diane Kruger), he sets out to reclaim his identity.

'Unknown' has much more in common with the mystery thrillers of the '60s than it does with the action-heavy 'Taken'. Characters stumble from one incident to another and the emphasis is on the mood rather than on the adrenaline. The occasional bit of violence and the one car chase do not drive the story, but add to it. While Neeson played a lethal predator in 'Taken', as Martin Harris he is a normal man, disturbed and puzzled by his predicament as anyone would be. As a result, his character feels much more vulnerable, which allows a much more realistic sense of threat.

The first half of the film capitalises on this. As Harris' world is turned upside-down, it is uncertain whether he is brain-damaged from his accident, or if there really is a conspiracy against him. Does hearing footsteps behind you mean that you're being followed? When those footsteps quicken, does it mean that you're being chased, or is it just somebody trying to catch a train? Director Jaume Collet-Serra creates a real sense of persecution and does a great job of blurring the line between paranoia and reality.

The rest of the film is less remarkable. The writing gets a little too imaginative for the serious tone established, and stretches plausibility almost to breaking point. The questions asked in the first half of the film are answered with too much exposition, and loose ends are tied up too hastily. What started off with a huge amount of potential ends up as a by-the-numbers mix of thriller clich├ęs. These things don't derail the movie, but it certainly is a pity.

Liam Neeson is as watchable as always, and despite playing tough guys in 'Taken' and 'The A-Team' he plays the victim here without any problems. Diane Kruger, forever playing supporting characters, gets more to do here, which is a good thing. January Jones and Frank Langella, however, are wasted in limited roles with little screen time.

'Unknown' certainly has problems, but they don't make the film any less enjoyable. Its interesting premise and its mostly-capable execution keep it just above the average popcorn fodder. There are plot-holes you need to ignore, and you probably won't remember much of it afterwards, but it will entertain you while it lasts.


'Unknown' is on wide release throughout UK cinemas now.

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