"What matters is what you do now."
About a quarter of the way through this action-suspense thriller, I thought of an old radio show (or TV show or movie, I don't remember exactly) I'd heard as a child in the Fifties about a man who comes home from work one night and his wife doesn't recognize him. Neither do his friends or neighbors. He's become an invisible or "unknown" man. I can't recall the name of that one, but the idea of 2011's "Unknown" is certainly similar. More important, "Unknown is a pretty decent film for at least three-quarters of the way before it falls apart toward the end, ultimately presenting us with one of those "Huh?" moments. Still, if you can cut a little slack for the movie's final revelations, "Unknown" will reward you with plenty of mystery and excitement.
The film stars Liam Neeson, who seems equally at home playing action heroes ("Taken," "The A-Team," "Darkman"), gods ("The Chronicles of Narnia," "Clash of the Titans"), enigmas ("Batman Returns"), Jedi Knights ("Star Wars"), or straight dramatic roles ("The Other Man," "Kinsey," "Michael Collins"). With the success of "Taken" in 2008, his role in "Unknown" seems a natural, only this time his character does not appear quite so accomplished the hero. This time he seems more like an ordinary guy relying on his wits to survive, something at which Neeson excels. Let me explain.
Neeson plays an American biochemist, Dr. Martin Harris, who goes to Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for a Biotech conference. No sooner do they arrive at their hotel than he discovers one of his suitcases has gone missing, so he leaves his wife to register for their room while he grabs a cab to retrace their steps and recover his lost luggage. But the cab gets involved in an accident, and he injures his head and goes into a coma, waking up in a hospital four days later with partial amnesia.
Now here's the thing: When he checks himself out of the hospital and rushes to the hotel to let his wife know he's OK, the wife refuses to recognize him. She says she doesn't know him, has no idea who he is. When he tries to prove who he is to hotel security, he finds he has no wallet, no driver's license, and no passport. What's more, the wife introduces him (and hotel security) to her real husband, another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn), at which point hotel security are about to call the police on our hero. So, what is a poor guy to do? He has no identification and nobody, not even his wife, to verify who he says he is, at which point he begins to question his own sanity. Did the bump on his head discombobulate his memory or jumble his mind? He wants to act reasonably, but he loses patience in a hurry, given such trying circumstances.
Anyway, after building up the mystery for a while, the plot suddenly takes a turn for the truly sinister, and we know we're in for a full-fledged thriller, albeit with psychological overtones.
The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, has not had the best track record with thrillers, producing two duds--"House of Wax" and "Orphan"--nor was the novel the screenwriters based their script on--French author Didier van Cauwelaert's "Out of My Head"--exactly a household name. But I understand the book got a pretty good reception as a story of confused personal identity and existential angst, and Collet-Serra actually seems at home in the psychological-thriller genre.
Besides, with Neeson in the lead, he makes everything we see on screen, no matter how far-fetched, seem plausible. We believe in his predicament, and we feel for his dilemma. Moreover, he gets excellent support not only from Ms. Jones as his wife, but from Diane Kruger as the taxi driver who originally drove him from the hotel and saved his life after the accident. When Harris goes to her for help in understanding what's happened to him, Kruger's character, Gina, is reluctant to become involved in the plight of this seeming madman. But she does become involved, much to our delight.
Then, we find the always dependable Frank Langella as one of Harris's old friends, a man who can confirm to everyone that Harris really is the man he claims to be; and Bruno Ganz, who was so good as Hitler in the film "Downfall," as an old-line spy now turned private investigator specializing in finding people.
"Unknown" contains the kind of old-fashioned mystery and suspense we got in movies of the Sixties and Seventies, with a helping of more-modern action in the form of car chases and fistfights. Nevertheless, there is less of the latter than one might think and more of the former, the intrigue overshadowing the hyperactivity of a typical action flick. This film has more of the feel of a small-budget brainteaser than a big-scale blockbuster.
Yes, the story falls into the commonplace by its last half hour; still, watching the puzzle unfold piece by incremental piece until the turning point seems more than worth the slight disappointment of the ending. The plot surely wraps things up too tidily, too conveniently, its resolution too pat, given the meticulous buildup. Just remember I forewarned you about the last few minutes and go with the rest of it. Besides, my taste could be entirely opposite your own, and you might find the climax and conclusion exactly to your liking, even if they weren't to mine.
Using a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec, the Warners video engineers do a pretty good transferring the movie to Blu-ray disc in the movie's native 2.40:1 aspect ratio. When I say a pretty good job, I mean the PQ looks about the way I remember it from a movie theater, varying in sharpness from scene to scene. IMDb reports that the filmmakers used 16 mm, 35 mm, and 65 mm photography in creating the movie, which may explain why some scenes are rather soft and veiled while others are crystal clear and rich in detail. Colors are good throughout, though, never too bright, never too very dull, the color palette running high to ice blues and iron greys, with black levels usually more than adequate.
Apropos of an action film, psychological or not, the sound is solid, sometimes startlingly so. With a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack behind it, you know the movie is going to score big in the dynamics department, and it does, with a wide range and a strong impact. The midrange is clean; the bass and treble are decent but not exceptional; and the surrounds produce a pleasant ambient bloom on the musical track, realistic environmental noises, and plenty of activity for the action sequences.
We get only two primary extras on the disc, brief featurettes. The first one is "Liam Neeson: Known Action Hero," a little over four minutes on the star and his work in the film, with comments from the actor and his fellow filmmakers. The second featurette is "Unknown: What Is Known?," also a little over four minutes, this time on the movie's story line.
The disc also includes twelve scene selections; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and a thin cardboard slipcover for the flimsy, two-disc Eco case.
Finally, because this is a Blu-ray Combo Pack, it contains the feature film in high definition on a Blu-ray disc, the feature film in standard definition on a DVD, and a digital copy of the film in standard definition for iTunes or Windows Media (the offer expiring June 19, 2012).
Liam Neeson makes an agreeable action hero, and it seems as though the older he gets, the better he gets at it. In "Unknown" his combination of rugged resourcefulness and vulnerable Everyman creates a character with whom a viewer can readily identify. The movie is flawed, to be sure, somewhat trite, clichéd, and, as I said earlier, old fashioned, yet it is never particularly dull. If you can forgive it for one twist too many, it is rewarding entertainment.