That seems as good a word as any to describe the brand new thriller, Unknown, that opened in your local cineplex today. The title is catchy, if you like single word titles like Salt or Taken, or Frenzy or Frantic, or if you like to think in series terms like Bourne, or Bond.
Once more, we, as the audience, have to align ourselves with a man alone in a strange city with a huge problem on his hands. Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, who has just arrived in Berlin for a Bio-tech conference. Unfortunately, he leaves his briefcase at the curbside at the airport. So his wife checks in without him as he heads back to the airport in a different taxi. Only there’s an auto accident, and his taxi crashes and then plunges into the river.
This is the first 3 or 4 minutes of the film, and while it succeeds in its task of hooking us – none of this is new. Bourne plunges off the bridge in Goa, India in the early moments of the second Bourne film. Harrison Ford’s wife played by Betty Buckley was kidnapped from their hotel suite within minutes after they arrived in Paris in Roman Polanski’s Frantic.
Harris awakens from his coma in a hospital 4 days later. He knows who he is, only his passport and travel documents were in the briefcase. Which no one has. He gathers himself and insists on checking himself out of the hospital. When he gets back to the Hotel Adlon-Kempinski, we find out that his wife, played by January Jones, who fails as a Grace Kelly-esqe icy blonde, doesn’t know him from Adam, and that he, Dr. Martin Harris, soon finds himself facing another man, played by Aidan Quinn, who is also Dr. Martin Harris, and that his wife chooses to align herself with this imposter.
So, by this point, Director Jaume Collet-Serra and his screenwriters have firmly set their hooks into us. The next hour and a half presents us with a few well choreographed car chases or fights, an ever increasing body count, and the layers of the mystery are slowly added on, one by one.
As the excitement mounts, and as the tension is ratcheted up – we begin to notice that much of what we are shown isn’t believable, or logical. The plot holes begin to gape open wider and wider.
Despite all of that – you remain intrigued enough to want to see how this plays out. You wait for Bruno Ganz to show up as an ex-Stasi, or former officer of the East German Secret Police. You wait for Frank Langella to appear as Harris’s long time colleague from the New Hampshire college where they met 15 years ago.
And you wait for the Grand Reveal, or said another way – the freakin’ explanation to tie all this together for us. As fans of thrillers know all so well, this is where the previously inexplicable plot twists, are now explained. Yes, there were more than a few plot twists – but you had to have expected them.
The film appears as interesting on its surface, or as you watch the trailer. But you don’t get anything great. Not the acting, not the action, and certainly not the script.
Neeson is likeable as the victim/hero. He has an everyman thing about him, so you identify with him. Diane Kruger plays the taxi driver who saves his life in the opening minutes. She is a German actress, only in this film, they have her as an illegal Bosnian. Ganz does well in his stint. This is the kind of role that normally goes to Armin Mueller-Stahl (Eastern Promises, The International). Frank Langella as Rodney Cole and Aidan Quinn as the other Dr. Martin Harris were neither outstanding nor horrendous. They are recognizable actors who signed on, came in, did their work, got paid, and went home.
While Unknown will be remembered as a serviceable thriller, despite its very preposterousness, you can see it and not leave the theater angry or seeking a refund. I guess that is kind of what used to be called a left-handed compliment. Which is after all, a preposterous but fitting way to end this review.