You can almost picture the pitch meeting at which the producers of Unknown agreed to fork over the cash: "It'll be like Taken meets the Bourne movies," says the screenwriter, "and we'll get one of those hot chicks from Mad Men to stand around for a couple of minutes."
"Sounds promising," the producer admits as visions of opening-weekend dollar signs dance in his head. "But I hope there's a twist."
Replies the writer, without missing a beat: "As many as you want."
And so it is that Liam Neeson, star of the phenomenally successful Taken, finds himself back in Europe at the center of another action caper. However, he's not trying to find his daughter or her captors, and he has no special training for this sort of thing. But like Jason Bourne, he is trying to piece together the mystery of his situation, and he needs a woman's help to do it.
Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a biochemistry conference. Realizing he has left his briefcase at the airport, Harris hails a cab, which minutes later careens off a bridge and into an icy river. Because his briefcase contains his passport and, apparently, all of his other forms of identification and most of his money, Dr. Harris wakes up in a hospital four days later an anonymous man.
He dashes back to the hotel, with the events of that fateful day mostly missing from his memory. There, he learns a shocking fact: He's not the only Martin Harris at the hotel or at the conference, and he's not even married to his wife. The new Dr. Harris (Aidan Quinn) seems perplexed by the entrance of this impostor, and vice versa.
Complicating matters is Mrs. Harris, who says she doesn't recognize the man who just emerged from the coma. So is he really Martin Harris, or has he imagined a life not his own? To help fill in the gaps, he tracks down the cab driver (Diane Kruger), the last person to see him before the accident, and he calls one of his colleagues at his American university (Frank Langella) to vouch for him.
Harris suspects that something other than mistaken identity is at play when he realizes he's also being followed. Why would anyone follow a tourist with no money and no identity? Realizing he needs someone with a little more pull in Germany, Harris somewhat conveniently stumbles onto a retiree who once worked in the East German intelligence community (the terrific Bruno Ganz).
Although Ganz and Langella combine their century of acting experience just once here, it is, in many ways, the best thing Unknown has to offer. The parameters of films like this are so inflexible—intense car chases through crowded streets, hand-to-hand combat, the big finish—that what amounts to an onscreen chess match is more exciting than everything else.
Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra seems to be moving slowly in the right direction, going from the atrocious House of Wax to the merely unappealing Orphan in 2009 to this sturdy-but-preposterous update of the stranger-in-a-strange-land concept. He handles the environment pretty well; as silly as all of this is, some of the left turns are worth taking and feel as organic as they can, given the circumstances. Collet-Serra does have Neeson to lean on, of course, and this stuff is like taking candy from a baby for Neeson at this point. (Ten years ago, Unknown would have starred Harrison Ford, and other than that, nothing substantial would need to be altered.)
While there are a couple of things to recommend about Unknown, it's still a little messy, and where it's bad, it's really bad. Consider January Jones, who is so astronomically lousy and unconvincing that it's a wonder ticket prices for this film aren't slashed 10 percent right off the top. Here is where a little more experience might help director Collet-Serra. Jones' character is truly of importance only a couple of times, so she should be de-emphasized as much as possible. It's a thinly written character, true, but Jones has no idea what to do with it, and it shows.
And then, of course, there's the confluence—that point in thrillers like this where all of the darts hit the bulls-eye. In Unknown, it is as cluttered as you might expect, amping up the physical action without addressing the audience's need to feel the events moving toward a satisfactory conclusion. Again, the director may learn how to better arrange those dominos sooner rather than later.
The final 20 minutes of Unknown kick down the door to stupidity and barge right in, demanding to be taken seriously. As if insisting to be Taken wasn't enough of a stretch.