Unknown is a perfectly adequate thriller of Hitchcockian extract, with Liam Neeson turning in a performance perhaps a bit better than the material deserves. Unfortunately, its true effectiveness as a mystery is undercut by the film’s own marketing campaign.
Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a biotech conference at which he will be a featured speaker. While his wife checks into their hotel, he races back to the airport to retrieve his attache case inadvertently left behind. However, the cab he is in gets into an accident, leaving Martin in a coma. When he wakens four days later, he has partial amnesia and is surprised to learn that his wife has apparently not been looking for him. Racing back to their hotel he sees her with another who claims to be her husband named Martin. Martin is left to try and unravel the mystery of the imposter posing with his wife is all the while doubting his own sanity and belief in who he is.
As is typical with most thrillers, Unknown‘s screenplay is more concerned with plot than with its characters. It gives just enough reasoning and motivation to support each character’s decisions that help propel the story along. Neeson makes out a bit better of course, by nature of his character being the center of all the action. He makes the most of it and manages to convince even when the script requires him to do things that seem a bit illogical. The supporting players Diane Kruger as the cab driver, Bruno Ganz as a West German security officer whom Martin turns to for help and Frank Langella as a colleague of Martin’s who arrives in Berlin to help straighten things out make the most of what they are given. The weak link in the cast turns out to be Jones, who is rather flat in her portrayal of Martin’s wife.
Director Jaume Collett-Serra use of some of the seedier sections of Berlin almost allows the city to be a character itself. Its graffitied walls and garbage-strewn streets reflect Martin’s own feelings of despair at being apparently cast aside and forgotten. This is definitely not the Berlin that its Chamber of Commerce or Tourism Board want you to know about. Collett-Serra also handles the action pieces of the film pretty well, with the exception of a few moments where the editing in a car chase scene gets a bit muddled.
While Unknown‘s script is well-constructed, the film’s big reveal towards the end has been betrayed by its own advertising. Virtually every single clue that the movie judiciously doles out over its run time has been packed into the 30-second spots that have clogged the television airwaves leading up to Unknown’s release. The end result is that anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention to the advertising for the film can pretty easily guess its big third act reveal. And this is a real shame, because it’s a pretty good surprise and one that the movie honestly sets up and earns and doesn’t feel like it is coming out of right field somewhere. Instead, the studio has cut its own product off at the knees and those who have seen the torrent of commercials for Unknown are liable to walk out of the theater a bit disappointed.