'Unknown': A Suspenseful, Action-Filled Mind-Bender

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Liam Neeson, January Jones

Dr. Martin (Liam Neeson) and Elizabeth Harris (January Jones) head to Berlin for a biotech conference. After that, discussion of what actually happens in Jaume Collet-Serra's thriller Unknown gets a bit murky. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros. Pictures

Unknown

  • Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
  • Genre: Dramatic Thriller
  • Running Time: 109 minutes

PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content.

With: Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn

Liam Neeson has his share of triumphs as a serious actor, but after the 2008 thriller Taken was a worldwide smash, every studio wanted to see him with a gun or knife or any available lethal shard taking out hordes of scummy thugs. You know — Schindler's List, now meet Schindler's Fist.

It's easy to see why he's so compelling in thrillers. He's tall and lean and still, at 58, unbelievably handsome but with a haggard intensity, a quality of emotional helplessness even at his most physically resourceful. In Taken, his motivation was to get his kidnapped daughter back, and that's what he did — in a straight, clean line, obliterating anyone in his way without a wasted motion. An action filmmaker needs only to put him onscreen, establish the premise and let 'er rip.

We're with him from the first shot of Unknown as he stares soulfully at puffy clouds through an airplane window. He and that sleek blond January Jones are Dr. Martin and Elizabeth Harris, and they're heading to Berlin for a big-deal biotech conference. But when they arrive at their tony hotel, he discovers the cabdriver left one of his bags at the airport and leaps into another taxi — this one driven by dishy German actress Diane Kruger, here playing a Slavic immigrant — and Martin tells her to step on it. She takes a bad turn, and there's a bridge and a river ...

And four days later, Martin awakes in a hospital with no I.D. and finds that no one has been looking for him. After signing himself out against his doctor's wishes, he talks security into letting him into the conference's gala ball to find his wife. And when he does find his wife, she claims to not know him and points to another man, played by Aidan Quinn, who she says is the real Dr. Martin Harris.

And here's where any discussion of Unknown is tricky. Is this an amnesia story — which means this guy only thinks he's Martin, despite what we saw in the early scenes? Is it brain-drain sci-fi, like Total Recall, or a virtual-reality mind-bender, like Inception? Is he dreaming? Is he dead but doesn't know it? Is that really his wife or a lookalike? Has he been set up by conspirators? Was the taxi driver — who has disappeared — in on it? Does any of this have to do with the biotechnology conference and its sponsor, a prince from some unnamed Middle Eastern country? Unknowns, unknowns.

After Martin takes a cab driven by Gina (Diane Kruger), things go awry. Martin wakes up four days later — in a hospital — and finds no one has been looking for him. i

After Martin takes a cab driven by Gina (Diane Kruger), things go awry. Martin wakes up four days later — in a hospital — and finds no one has been looking for him. Jay Maidment/Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Jay Maidment/Warner Bros. Pictures
After Martin takes a cab driven by Gina (Diane Kruger), things go awry. Martin wakes up four days later — in a hospital — and finds no one has been looking for him.

After Martin takes a cab driven by Gina (Diane Kruger), things go awry. Martin wakes up four days later — in a hospital — and finds no one has been looking for him.

Jay Maidment/Warner Bros. Pictures

Pretty soon I got the sense that Unknown's makers were boxing themselves into a corner and any resolution would be a giant letdown. Well, there is a letdown, but not a giant one — certainly not enough to keep Unknown from being a hell of a ride. The Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps the movie lean and fast and endlessly upending; and, unlike most modern crash-and-bash action directors, he stages fisticuffs and car chases you can actually follow: They're full of neat spatial gags, like the shot in which two cars — one pursued, one pursuing — make a high-speed hairpin turn in perfect synchronization, or the Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse prowl through an art gallery amid giant photos of old women's faces.

Unknown also has two marvelous turns by old pros. Bruno Ganz is a detective whom Martin hires — an ex-East German Stasi officer who is proud of his past and his reputation as a "detail man." We end up rooting for totalitarian ingenuity! Then the grave and wickedly understated Frank Langella shows up as a colleague of Martin's from America to sort out the mess — and make a lot more.

My only quibble? Neeson takes too long to stop running away from people who want to kill him and start wasting them. But when he rises to the occasion it's a mighty moment. That's the part of Unknown that's a known — and unbeatable — quantity.

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