Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

"A classic example of a workmanlike piece given enough polish to make it stand out."

Liam Neeson has bloomed late as the thinking man's mature action star, filling the space vacated by actors such as Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson. Following the success of Neeson's revenge thriller Taken (2008), Unknown clearly seeks to tap into the same vein and to use the 'Neeson effect' to the full.

Simply look at its poster: note the chic Berlin backdrop, the sleek title logo, and front and centre as the main draw is the brooding gun-wielding Neeson. Such is his perceived ability now to elevate this genre, the Hollywood Reporter magazine ran a feature following Unknown's US release titled “Five reasons why Liam Neeson is on top of the box office”. They noted his relatability and the credit he has in the bank as a serious actor, combined with his appearance as a fresh face in a stale genre (despite being 58 years old). Time magazine's Richard Corliss agrees: “Unlike Harrison Ford, who usually plays a grouch with muscles, Neeson suggests the intellect of someone who might have stayed awake in college classes; he's as plausible as an Ivy League scientist as he is a thug for hire."

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With Unknown, Neeson treads much of the safe ground he did with Taken, except now the setting is Germany rather than Paris. The narrative plays more as a Hitchock/Polanski-esque Euro mystery with a twist than an action romp, director Jaume Collet-Serra stealing unashamedly from North by Northwest, Frantic and even the sci fi film Total Recall. We are introduced to Neeson as his flight descends on Berlin. He is Dr Martin Harris, a biologist in town for a major biotech conference with his wife of 5 years, Liz (January Jones). After arriving at their hotel, the loss of his briefcase, which contains his passport and key documents, forces him to take a taxi driven by immigrant Gina (Diana Kruger) back to the airport. A random road accident, however, causes his taxi to crash into a river, and when Harris awakes he is in a hospital following a four-day coma. With his ID lost and his memory foggy, Harris is shocked when he returns to the hotel to find that Liz refuses to recognise him. Not only that, but another man is with her claiming to also be Dr Martin Harris, and has the passports to prove it.

With little money and no one to turn to, a confused and paranoid Harris is forced to trudge through a snow-covered Berlin to find the only people who can verify what happened to him: the cab driver Gina and a retired Stasi officer called Jurgen (Bruno Ganz) who specialises in digging up missing persons. Before long, however, mysterious assassins are closing in, forcing Harris and Gina run from clue to clue and red herring to red herring whilst Jurgen works behind the scenes.

Though immediately identifiable as mish-mash of other genre movies, Unknown is a classic example of a workmanlike piece given enough polish to make it stand out. In terms of casting, Neeson proves once again he can elevate almost any film handed to him, keeping Harris a sympathetic and believable character even as increasingly ludicrous twists engulf him. The film is almost entirely told from his point of view, so it is Neesons's credit that we never lose interest in his quest to unravel the mystery of who Martin Harris really is, if he exists at all. Neeson is also a real talent at carrying off Harris's transition from hunted everyman to executor of hard-hitting action scenes.

January Jones, though she doesn't have a huge amount of screen time, at least looks the part of the statuesque, Hitchockian blonde with an icy edge. The most entertaining turn comes from Bruno Ganz as Jurgen, a weary man, shockingly open about his secret police history spent digging out those who wanted to stay hidden. Both Ganz and fellow German actor Sebastian Koch don't have a lot to do, but it is refreshing to see a Hollywood genre movie taking on board local talent to add some colour.

Collet-Serra keeps the plot moving along nicely, mixing up revelations, car chases and grubby fist fights with a tour through Berlin's seedier side, all the while keeping enough paranoia in the air about Neeson's reliability as a narrator. It is also refreshing to see a twist/revelation that actually manages to justify virtually everything that went before, without the need for a technological sci-fi get out clause or too much stretching of the imagination. Unknown is never anything more than formulaic, but the formula has been mixed with the right type of ingredients.

Reviewed on: 02 Mar 2011
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Unknown packshot
A man fights back after his identity is stolen.
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Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Writer: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell, Didier Van Cauwelaert

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider, Stipe Erceg, Rainer Bock, Mido Hamada, Clint Dyer, Karl Markovics, Eva Löbau, Helen Wiebensohn

Year: 2011

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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North By Northwest