Liam Neeson has always been somewhat of a versatile actor. From Oskar Schindler in Spielberg’s moving Schindler’s List to a Jedi master in the rebirth of Star Wars, there don’t appear to be very many types of films he hadn’t tried. Taken introduced us to a tough-guy character that we hadn’t really seen before, even in the film reboot of The A-Team. There he played an intelligence officer trying to rescue his kidnapped daughter. It was a rather powerful performance, so I can’t say I was very surprised to see him play the one-man army role once again in Unknown. It’s another very fine performance by Neeson, but this time the film itself doesn’t quite hold up to the previous outing.
Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is a scientist attending a conference in Germany with his wife Elizabeth (Jones). On his way to the hotel he is in a serious car crash that sends his taxi into the water, and the good doctor Harris clinically dead for a short time. He wakes up in a hospital where no one knows who he is. His troubles are about to get worse when the hotel employees do not remember him and his wife denies knowing him. In fact another man is now claiming to be Dr. Harris, and has been accepted by everyone as the real guy. With the help of the cab driver Gina (Kruger) and an old cold war operative (Ganz), he attempts to find out what happened. Of course, there appear to be some folks out there who want him dead. The only man who seems to have any real answers is his old friend Rodney Cole (Langella). But Harris might not like the answers he gets.
We’ve seen these stolen-identity films before, so there’s nothing new there. It’s a little tough to play along because there are so many red herrings floating around the film. In fact, when you do catch up with the inevitable plot twist, I’m afraid you’re going to feel a little ripped off. There’s really nothing clever about it, and it really does come out of left field. We’re denied the chance to follow some interesting breadcrumbs along with Harris as he pieces his life or identity back together. The pace is awkward, to say the least, and the story throws characters at us, often to quickly dispatch or abandon them in short order. Director Jaume Collet-Serra appears to be in a little over his head here. That doesn’t mean he can’t manage a few good scenes. There’s a car chase that will remind you of The French Connection somewhat. That means he has the ability to put the goods together. He just doesn’t quite know how to tell a coherent story. Either that or he is trying to be way too clever here. Whatever the reason, Unknown is a film that doesn’t quite take the viewer along for the ride.
There are two strong performances here. Neeson shows us that Taken wasn’t a fluke and he has an uncanny ability to deliver real pathos to an action figure. We truly get the emotional journey Harris is on even if the telling is rather awkward. Frank Langella is always a treat, and he’s quite badly used in this one. Still, he manages to deliver a menacing enough presence. January Jones is not at her best playing the wife. It’s not really her fault; it’s not a terribly well-written plot. Most of the time she looks like she doesn’t know what she’s doing. I felt more for the actress here than any of the characters. Diane Kruger has more to do as Gina, but even she doesn’t ever quite get in sync. I’m not sure that either the writers or the director had a complete idea of who they wanted her to be. It’s a very sad case of slight of hand. They want us to keep our eyes on Neeson and ignore what anyone else has to do. Not quite fair to the talented actors who are trying to come along for the ride.
Unknown is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at a disappointing average of 17 mbps. The German locations actually look quite good, and color reproduction is rather nice. The film plays out in rather cold blue hues, while some of the stuff from Neeson’s memories plays out in much warmer yellows and browns. Black levels are solid also. Where the image presentation breaks down is in its detail and texture. It’s not a very sharp image at all.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is a much better presentation. Subs will come alive quite nicely during the action sequences. The score does a perfect job of building when it should and also getting out of the way when it needs to. Dialog comes through quite clearly at all times. There are some wonderful subtle moments where the surrounds add just that slight touch to make this an immersive experience all the way.
Liam Neeson – Known Action Hero: (4:33) Very short promotional feature that hypes the actor and the action moments.
Unknown – What Is Known: (4:24) Really only synopsis stuff here.
I wish that I could have liked this film more. I was taken with Taken more than most even after two viewings. I find Neeson to be compelling most of the time, and this film was no exception to that rule. He just isn’t given enough solid support to make it worth your time. Granted his fans will watch it, willing to settle for the nice character moments. But, if you’re hoping for more, I’d skip this one entirely. “You can trust me.”