By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Action audiences were certainly taken with Taken, in which the versatile Liam Neeson took a dip in the action pool.
It’s unknown as yet whether they’ll now buy him as an angry amnesiac in Unknown — sort of a companion piece, a Given to that Taken — but it certainly puts him back in improbable fistfight, explosion, and car-chase territory.
This Unknown, a psychological action thriller originally titled Unknown White Male (and not to be confused with 2006’s Unknown starring Jim Caviezel), is a dark exercise in justifiable paranoia and nightmarish menace.
Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist who travels to wintry Berlin to speak at a biotechnology global summit and is severely injured when his taxi skids off the road. He awakens from his coma after four days to discover that someone else, played by Aidan Quinn, is parading around impersonating him and that no one in his life, including his wife of ten years, played by January Jones (from TV’s “Mad Men” and in way over her head), believes he is who he says he is.
Has he lost his memory? Or his mind?
And not only has his identity been stolen — this thriller sporting purposeful echoes of The Bourne Identity and its sequels, as well as plot-point similarities to Roman Polanski’s Frantic — which none of the authorities are willing to believe, but no one from his former life will vouch for him.
Even worse, apparently assassins are on his trail for some reason, hunting him down.
So the amnesiac sets out to uncover the web of deceit, to prove he’s who he says he is, and to take back his life with the help of Gina, the illegal Bosnian taxi driver (played by Diane Kruger) who saved his life after the accident.
But he finds himself questioning his most basic assumptions about himself: is it just his mind and memory playing tricks on him, or is it other people — including Frank Langella as his best friend back in New Hampshire, or Bruno Ganz as a former spy with the East German secret police?
Director Jaume Collet-Sera (House of Wax, Orphan, Goal II: Living the Dream) unfolds his complex and initially engrossing plot with technical skill, but too many of its embedded twists and turns strain credulity. It is escapism, to be sure, but the fanciful narrative lacks the kind of credibility that would make it stick to the ribs and remain in the memory.
The screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell — based on the novel Out of My Head by French writer Didier Van Cauwelaert — explores memory and identity by taking the book’s absurdist-existential angst and converting it into an exercise in doubting-what’s-real paranoia.
But there are gaps in logic, farfetched absurdities, arbitrary red herrings, and other screenwriting shortcuts that reduce the film’s impact by occasionally spilling right off the silliness scale.
When you hold off as long as this one does in revealing the central narrative secret, the explanation has to be interesting and credulous enough for us not to dismiss the whole yarn as a glorified shaggy dog story. Unfortunately, Unknown fails to deliver that kind of explanation or closure.
Neeson is such a charismatic and sympathetic screen presence that we hang in there with him for much of the way. But even he can’t deliver authenticity when we most need and seek it. Unknown is unknowable because it just doesn’t make any kind of sense.
So we’ll recall 2 stars out of 4 for a feverish mystery thriller that gets our attention but eventually loses our respect. Whether there was a sensible and satisfying way to solve the puzzle and resolve Unknown remains unknown.