Movie Reviews - 'Unknown' - A Suspenseful, Action-Filled Mind-Bender Liam Neeson plays a botanist-turned-action-star in Jaume Collet-Serra's thriller Unknown. Critic David Edelstein says the tricky thriller takes viewers on a hell of a ride while letting Neeson shine as an action star.
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'Unknown': A Suspenseful, Action-Filled Mind-Bender

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

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

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

Liam Neeson stars in the new thriller Unknown as a man whose identity essentially vanishes into thin air after he's injured in a car crash.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: 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 clean, straight 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. And 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.

(Soundbite of movie, "Unknown")

Unidentified Actor: (as character) Excuse me, Madame, your husband is here.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LIAM NEESON (Actor): (as Dr. Martin Harris) Liz. Oh, Jesus.

Ms. JANUARY JONES (Actor): (as Elizabeth Harris) Excuse me, do I know you?

Mr. NEESON: (as Dr. Martin Harris) Whats wrong? I'm sorry. I was in an accident. I was in a coma. I didnt they didnt know who I was.

Ms. JONES: (as Elizabeth Harris) Oh, you must have me confused with someone else.

Mr. NEESON: (as Dr. Martin Harris) Liz, its me, Martin, your husband.

Ms. JONES: (as Elizabeth Harris) This is a misunderstanding. I don't know this. This is my husband.

Unidentified Actor: (as character) You are Dr. Martin Harris?

Mr. AIDAN QUINN (Actor): (Dr. Martin Harris) Last time I looked. Yup. Still me.

Mr. NEESON: (as Dr. Martin Harris) Whats going on here? Is this some kind of a joke?

Mr. QUINN: (Dr. Martin Harris) You know this man?

Ms. JONES: (as Elizabeth Harris) No.

Mr. NEESON: (as Dr. Martin Harris) Who the hell are you?

Mr. QUINN: (Dr. Martin Harris) Who the hell are you?

Mr. NEESON: (as Dr. Martin Harris) I'm her husband.

EDELSTEIN: That was Aidan Quinn looking smarmy as the so-called real Dr. Martin Harris. January Jones, meanwhile, is always so blank it's hard to tell what's going on Lizs head.

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.

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 great 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.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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