Into this arena steps Unknown. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and starring Liam Neeson this European set thriller has all the trademarks of a low rent mindless action movie – a nonsensical plot, characters that boil down to simplistic stereotypes, poorly constructed and executed action sequences and a high concept premise that relies on the belief that a bump on the head will cause partial amnesia and further bumps will bring back that memory piece by piece. If Unknown succeeded as an action film then fantastic, a good action film is a good film but its constant failings means it never comes close to success and the schizophrenic approach in which the filmmakers seem to be labouring under the belief that they are making an intelligent action thriller makes it all the more disastrous.
The plot ensures that the film never veers into anything vaguely approaching intelligent storytelling with a structure that is entirely reliant on Neeson’s central character remembering salient pieces of information at the exact moment he needs to, or in many cases a few seconds after they would have actually have been useful. The constant twists and turns in the narrative have led some to label this kind of thriller Hitchcockian but unlike even Hitchcock’s weaker films nothing about Unknown convinces an audience that these events are really happening and without the feeling of being trapped with the character as the events unravel, that was key to many Hitchcock films, we are left observing ludicrous things happening to ludicrous characters.
The film opens with a mildly intriguing first act in which the American scientist Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) arrives in Berlin with his wife Elizabeth (January Jones). The couple are separated with Elizabeth checking into a hotel and Martin racing back to the airport to pick up a forgotten piece of luggage. On the way there he becomes involved in a car accident that results in his amnesia inducing bump on the head. Saved by the heroic skills of taxi driver Gina (Diane Kruger) he is dropped off at the hospital where he stays until he awakes, becomes increasingly distraught and finally discharges himself. Rushing to the hotel he finds his wife with another man who she claims is her husband, Martin Harris. Neeson’s character then enlists the help of ex-Stasi officer turned private investigator Ernst Jurgen (Bruno Ganz) and ultimately taxi driver/illegal immigrant Gina to try and figure out what the hell is going on. Cue woefully executed car chases, uninspired fight sequences and a plot that derails itself with contrivances and absurdities at every turn.
The direction and editing of the car chases is particularly egregious with a seemingly incessant need to cut to extreme close ups of gear changes, handbrake shifts and feet hitting pedals. The reason for this appears to be the desire to tell the audience that this is a really thrilling car chase that’s fast and action packed. Clearly this was deemed easier than actually making a car chase that is thrilling or action packed. The experience is akin to an excitable child behind you making “vroom vroom!!” noises to suggest strongly that the car is going fast. At no point do you believe it though and after a very short amount of time it becomes incredibly annoying. The hand to hand fights between characters are equally weak with efforts to inject kineticism through the editing and composition failing to make rather dully choreographed action look interesting. Unlike Liam Neeson’s previous action romp across a European city Taken (a film which undoubtedly played a part in Neeson’s casting here) or any of the Bourne trilogy (a trilogy that Unknown is indebted to, for better or worse) , Unknown seems to take no joy in the action. There is no gleeful bone crunching visceral absurdity that at least added a bit of ‘fun’ to those films. No, the makers of Unknown seem to be firm in their resolve that this is serious and intelligent, thereby missing out on the only thing that could have saved this daft thriller, enjoyment.
Perhaps the only area where the film falls into being fun is in an entirely unintentional one and that is in the performances. With the exception of Bruno Ganz, who seems to be trying to expertly act his way out of the bad script, and to a lesser degree Diane Kruger, the performances are laughably bad. Whether down to a bad script, poor direction or lousy editing (all are present) or even just terrible work on the actors’ part Unknown runs the gamut of things that can go wrong in a performance. January Jones comes out of it the worst though with line readings that are impossible not to just roll your eyes and laugh at. The stilted, awkward way she delivers the line, “Are you crazy?” is a hot mess highpoint. A guilty pleasure moment derived from it being so bad it’s almost good but this is hardly a point to recommend the film on. Liam Neeson fairs a little better but still seems to be partially comatose for most of the film. Albeit in keeping with the story this seems to be more born out of a weak performance than any commitment to the character’s mental state. His more emotional scenes are littered with dreadful lines of exposition badly delivered and at one point Frank Langella even appears to seemingly just to help him out with some of the more ridiculous expositional dialogue.
Even tied to a tricky high concept Unknown still had all the potential to be an exciting action film, a smart and well told story and an enthralling thriller with a high class international cast and a characterful European location but ineptitude and idiocy render this a disastrous and vacuous mess.