Please note: spoiler warnings are marked on one paragraph below.
Before I get the review underway properly, I need to make it clear that, due to the nature of the film’s plot involving amnesia and discovery, it’s probably best to avoid reading any reviews at all, until after you’ve seen Unknown. (Don’t go IMDbing the cast, either). I’ll try to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, but as a quick overview, I can safely say this: Unknown is tense and thoroughly enjoyable, with its few action-styled thrills being an absolute highlight.
If you’re anything like me, the first question on your mind will be how does it compare to Taken, especially with the poster and trailer promising a similar level of Liam Neeson smashery? Truthfully, Unknown never reaches the same action movie heights as Taken, so don’t go expecting more of the same as a stop gap until Taken 2 is potentially made, as this is much more of a thriller counterpart to his exploits in France.
Unknown shares more in common with The Bourne Identity in many ways, with the obvious misplaced amnesiac as a central character, reaching out for help on his journey of discovery, with odd moments of explosive action happening around him. The main difference between Jason Bourne and Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson), however, is that Bourne discovers fairly quickly that he has a mysterious knack for breaking peoples’ faces, while Harris is much more reliant on his sharp intellect to deal with unfolding events. In what might be an intentional visual homage, Harris actually starts with the Bourne-style long coat and swaps it out for a similar leather jacket worn in Taken, which is one way to earn major geek points.
I had the pleasure of reviewing the cinematic release of Taken, which proved a great opportunity to enthuse about the merits of Den Of Geek favourite, Liam Neeson, but since the opportunity has arisen again, I figured I might as well indulge myself once more, but for good reason.
Unknown is yet another example of how effortlessly Neeson can hold an entire film together, managing to uniquely blend emotion with physicality in a way that few male actors can manage. When a film needs a protagonist to elicit help and sympathy from total strangers, then there are none more believable than Neeson, especially with his gentle nature and sad eyes.
Don’t fuck with him, though.
Without wanting to spoil anything, yet wanting to entice those of you predisposed to some of his uniquely statuesque brand of violence, I can say that he has to defend himself at one point and a steel pipe falls to hand. Work the rest out.
This is only director Jaume Collet-Serra’s fourth film, with his previous work consisting of the House Of Wax remake, Goal II and Orphan, and it’s to his credit how well the scattered moments of action are handled and shot. He strives for maximum impact, while keeping things visible and free from too many fast edits. And who knows, maybe on the strength of Unknown he’ll be given the Taken 2 reins. He certainly deserves them.
While Neeson’s Dr. Harris investigates his predicament, he is helped and hindered along the way by a suitably talented and eclectic mix of supporting actors. Diane Kruger ably fulfils a very similar role to Bourne‘s Franka Potente, at times frighteningly so, while January Jones failed to really convince me as Harris’ wife, who may, or may not, be a part of the turmoil.
I’ve yet to watch the highly praised Mad Men, so this was the first prominent role of Jones’ that’s crossed my path and I’ll admit that she was under a fair amount of scrutiny, especially now she’s become a part of my beloved X-Men (as Emma Frost). But I’d be curious to hear what Mad Men viewers have to say.
Frank Langella is in the film, too, but his role here is small, sharing more in common with his recent appearance in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Aidan Quinn’s character, on the other hand, exudes a smugness and polished veneer from the get-go, having the desired effect of causing immediate disdain, while giving adequate screen time to the oft-overlooked actor. Most notably, though, Bruno Ganz (probably best known for his portrayal of Adolf Hitler in Downfall) steals every scene he’s in, with alarming ease.
Where the film falls a little flat is with its often clichéd and hammy dialogue, which seems to rub the wrong way against the undercurrent of gentle humour that runs throughout. When such careful attention is paid to the narrative, it’s a shame to have things jarred by someone repeating hackneyed lines we’ve heard a hundred times before.
Unknown also feels a little drawn out at times, with its runtime of 113 minutes slowing things down noticeably in a film that cracks along nicely, for the most part.
Mild spoilers ahead (which I won’t make explicit, in case you catch a glance).
So many films that rely on a big reveal have a tendency to scupper much of the narrative that’s gone before, undoing a lot of the faith you’ve invested the movie itself. Where Unknown utterly succeeds though, is when the third act revelation occurs and the conspiratorial elements appear to be happening on a much grander scale than expected. It moves the film into much more exciting territory, and what’s more, it leads to the slight possibility that Neeson may have found himself another franchise.
Arguably, Unknown is a three star film, with four star moments, especially when compared to the dizzying heights of Taken that the former’s poster implies both films share. Yet, Unknown is still a strong film in its own right and one I can’t wait to watch again.
So, for the immediate re-watch-ability, the ever charismatic Neeson, and the great potential it shows, I’m giving it four. Just make sure you go in expecting an overblown thriller, not an action flick, and you won’t be disappointed.
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