Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella. (2011, PG-13, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Feb. 25, 2011
An optimist might light on the intrigue packed into the title’s terse tergiversation, and surely Unknown is never better than in its early stages when the audience still hopes the little gray cells may get a workout alongside the adrenal gland. This thriller, from the Catalonian director of Orphan, swiftly establishes the facts – an academic named Martin Harris (Neeson) arrives in snowy Berlin with his pretty wife, Elizabeth (Jones), to deliver a speech at a biotechnology conference – and then immediately calls those facts into question when Martin suffers a head injury and wakes from a coma to discover his colleagues branding him an impostor, another man (Quinn) sporting his nametag at the conference, and Elizabeth denying all knowledge of him. (One can imagine the keepsake mug: “I cheated death, and all I got was my lousy wife swearing I’m a perfect stranger.”) The gray cells, keen for some mental gymnastics, leap into action – Is Martin crazy? Or is this all some winding conspiracy? – and for a time, Unknown enjoyably motors along on the anticipation of more subterfuge or some plot-twisting prestidigitation. We wait: sniffing for clues in every raised eyebrow, perking at the sight of a sinister German trailing Martin, his sketchiness signposted with modernity’s version of a curling mustachio – the hands-free Headset of Evil attached to one ear. And we wait some more. Pretty soon, we’re at the cooling-of-the-heels place. Yes, yes, there’s a more-than-passable car chase that skitters dangerously close to the trolley line, but soon after – yet long before the thudding big reveal, with all its moral quandaries quashed with a Hollywood action hero’s self-righteous fervor – a deadening realization sets in: This is no more (but no less?) than what we have rather oddly come to expect from Neeson in his late period (Taken, The A-Team) – not quite a riddle wrapped in an enigma, just a paycheck gig cloaked in an actioner, moonlighting as a travelogue.