What’s noteworthy about the new film "Unknown," is not its groundbreaking narrative design, its innovative cinematography or its artistic integrity; On the contrary, "Unknown" actually lacks most of the aforementioned. What really stands out in the movie is a completely standard plot, trendy direction, and total cinematic mildness.
The film begins with Dr. Martin Harris, played by Liam Neeson ("Taken"), and his wife, played by January Jones (TV’s "Mad Men"), arriving in wintery Berlin for a summit on biotechnology. After a baggage mishap at the airport separates the spouses, Martin is involved in a serious car accident, involving his taxi and a refrigerator. He is submerged in an icy canal and spends the next several days in a coma. Upon awakening, Martin discovers that a stranger, played by Aiden Quinn, ("Jonah Hex"), has stolen his identity and his wife. Though suffering from a rather severe head injury, Martin sets out to prove his identity.
Martin begins his mission by tracking down the driver of the taxi he was injured in, an illegal immigrant named Gina, played by Diane Kruger ("Inglorious Basterds"). Martin also employs the services of private detective Ernst Jürgen, played by Bruno Ganz ("The Reader"), a former Stasi bloodhound now succumbing to emphysema. Martin soon finds himself defeating would-be assassins, escaping his pursuers in a metal-crunching car chase and uncovering a conspiracy that goes beyond what he initially perceived it to be.
The plot of "Unknown" has every characteristic of the thriller genre: a stolen identity, an innocent man wronged, menacing assassins, car and foot chases, a femme fatale, trendy European sets with monuments and compact cars and just an inkling of suspense to top it all off; that being said, the plot is fairly contrived and unrealistic. Twists and turns meant to entice the audience instead end up further mangling the already contorted plot. The plot seems to be derived specifically from movies such as "Frantic" and Neeson’s last thriller, "Taken." If this trend holds, soon we’ll have a new thriller subgenre: alienated American male seeks missing spouse or child in Europe.
The plot, in addition to being awkward and substandard, has its share of dead ends. Some aspects of the story are completely uncovered, some are partially examined and a few are left unexplained. The film’s final series of revelations do little to clarify some of the story’s more eccentric diversions from reality. In the third act, the film diverges from thriller to pure action, most likely in a vain attempt to give the audience what they really came to see: Liam Neeson’s choreographed fighting skills.
"Unknown" contains a host of other well-reputed actors including Frank Langella ("Frost/Nixon") and Karl Markovics ("Die Fälscher"). The entire cast performs adequately, despite a sub-par script, with Neeson carrying the full weight of the story. Some reviewers point to action sequences of and the entirety of "Taken" as a late career switch by Neeson to the action genre. Critics seem to have forgotten that the veteran actor began his career with such action-oriented films as "Excalibur" and "Krull." This taken into account, Neeson seems to be either getting back to his roots or having some sort of macho midlife crisis. Either way, Neeson has done quite a few cheap flicks lately, including "After.Life," "Clash of the Titans," "The A-Team" and now "Unknown."
"Unknown" also contains some less well-known actors and actresses, most of whom do surprisingly little damage to the film. The stunningly beautiful Jones is the sole exception, acting her way into complete oblivion. Her acting is very artificial and noticeably forced, making viewers aware that what they’re was watching fiction.
The direction and cinematography in "Unknown" tries to be very stylish and cool but ultimately fails at that and, worse yet, fails to be even remotely original. The movie uses standard camera tricks that add to the amateurish nature of the film. The special effects are all obviously computer-generated, and the lack of hard violence, brief sexuality and light language make "Unknown" surprisingly family-friendly.
"Unknown" looks and sounds like the most standard thriller ever produced, and that might turn many people off, but it is for that very reason the film has any worth whatsoever. It’s a genre film. It’s a composite of what our culture wants and expects from a movie of the thriller genre. In this sense, "Unknown" isn’t complete garbage. It’s not a particularly bad movie, but still isn’t anything extraordinary or even remotely unique.