Movie Review: Unknown
By Matthew Huntley
March 2, 2011

Are you making fun of my tie? Because I know Nic Cage and he'll have you killed.

Unknown is what you might call an established, dependable thriller — it stays within the confines of its genre but is slick and entertaining nonetheless. Like last year’s Salt, it tosses in a few twists that prevent it from being exactly like others of its kind, but it’s careful not to cheat. Its surprises are valid and they allow it to stand out and engage us.

The movie opens with Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife Liz (January Jones) arriving in Berlin. He’s in town to discuss his thesis at a biotechnology summit but accidentally leaves his briefcase at the airport, which contains his identification and other important documents. While Liz is checking in at the hotel, he heads back to the airport to look for it. While taking a shortcut, the cab driver (Diane Kruger) crashes off a bridge and into the river below. Martin hits his head and falls into a coma for four days.

When he wakes up, Martin discovers Liz is not by his side but back at the hotel with her husband: one Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). She claims never to have seen the Neeson character before and almost all linkage to him has been replaced by this new guy, presumably an impostor. With little money or proof of who he is, Martin calls his friend Rodney (Frank Langella) back in the States and tells him, “I’m in trouble.” He certainly is.

More of the plot, I will not reveal, except that Bruno Ganz, who was so memorable as Adolf Hitler in Downfall, gives another fine performance as a stranger who becomes Martin’s unexpected and resourceful ally, and Kruger finds her way back into the storyline. She plays Gina, an illegal immigrant who figures she can utilize Martin as much as he can her. As usual, Neeson is naturally sympathetic and forceful, so it’s not difficult to jump onboard and identify with him as the leading man.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, best known for genre pictures like the underrated Orphan, does a good job of building tension when it’s needed and nicely balances the movie’s action with the screenplay’s unimaginative yet serviceable dialogue. The rules of the genre make it easy to tell where it’s going from one scene to the next, but the editing is punchy, the photography and locations are crisp and there are some unexpected moments of humor, as when the two competing Martins try to justify they’re the real deal and wind up speaking the same dialogue.

If it’s a thriller you want, it’s a thriller you get. Unknown delivers all the usual, albeit effective, fight scenes; an elaborate car chase through Berlin (where once again all parties walk away almost completely unscathed); a couple explosions; and the inevitable climax when the heroes must race against time to prevent catastrophe from happening. All this is handled competently and assuredly by the filmmakers and makes for a solidly entertaining and exciting experience. When it comes to thrillers, isn’t that why we go?