He is in Berlin for a biotech summit. He is involved in a car accident, whacks his head badly, and wakes up in a hospital four days later unsure of a lot of things. He knows his name is Martin Harris, he knows he is a doctor, and he knows his wife is around somewhere, because she came to Berlin with him, and now she is probably wondering where he is. He manages to find her. She doesn’t know who he is. There is a man next to her, claiming to be her husband, Martin Harris.

And this is about all I can tell you about the plot of Unknown, a twisty thriller in which Liam Neeson, as Martin Harris — perhaps the real Martin Harris, perhaps not — bulldozes all around Berlin looking for answers. He does not — sadly for those who fondly remember him in Taken — punch everyone in the throat. Martin Harris is not a fighter, or at least he doesn’t think he is. He finds it increasingly hard to grab onto exactly who he is. What he discovers, and how he discovers it, are the movie’s currency. This is a by-the-numbers thriller, in which nothing is what it seems, but nothing is what it seems in pretty much the way you’d expect, if that makes sense. It may make a halfway diverting rental in a few months.

I can tell you the little bits I enjoyed. They may not be worth your $6.50 to experience for yourself, but they were worth something to me. To start with Liam Neeson: he is a sadder actor now than he was in Taken, for obvious reasons. He seems to have new and unfortunate resources to draw upon to play a disoriented man standing in a hospital wondering why he no longer seems to have a wife. Our awareness of Neeson’s extratextual grief lends gravitas, possibly unearned by the script, to the emotional center of Unknown. I liked Neeson sitting quietly on a cheap bed next to Diane Kruger as a taxi driver who he thinks can help him. Neeson, or Martin Harris, is so visibly overwhelmed by confusion and sadness that Kruger’s heart goes out to him, even though it should probably stay put.

Late in the game there is a diamond in the rough of all the convolutions. Two master actors, Bruno Ganz as an ex-Stasi agent Martin Harris has contacted for help and Frank Langella as a scientific colleague of Martin Harris’, stand facing each other in an unpretentious little Berlin walk-up. They talk about cars; they don’t say much. All is said with glances, silent realizations. The two great actors play an ominous duet of regret. This is what I hope to find in thrillers like this: malevolent elegance tuned to perfection. It’s very brief, and soon we are back to car chases and a skulking assassin and a bomb that threatens the lives of thousands.

I don’t imagine myself seeing Unknown again, but I would like to revisit the first ten minutes or so, to see if it squares with what we learn at the end. Part of this experiment would involve monitoring Liam Neeson’s pre-accident performance for any “tells.” As for January Jones as his wife: many critics have taken her to task for her somnambulant work here, but in her defense, it’s hard to say in retrospect how such a role should, or even could, be played. She certainly doesn’t seem like Martin Harris’ wife, or anyone else’s. Maybe January Jones knew that Liam Neeson would be doing most of the heavy lifting: we don’t have to believe in her, we just have to believe that Liam Neeson believes in her. And he sells that. I suppose that’s enough.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, thriller

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