Movie Review: “Unknown” is Better Left That Way

A fine actor who has played everyone from Oscar Wilde to Alfred Kinsey with great acclaim, Liam Neeson seems to

A fine actor who has played everyone from Oscar Wilde to Alfred Kinsey with great acclaim, Liam Neeson seems to have embarked on a new career of making one cheesy bomb after another. Maybe he’s bored. Maybe he just wants to soak up the money and throw in the bath mat. Maybe he needs to give up the notion of being a movie star and return to the stage. Maybe he needs a new agent. Whatever the reason, he’s giving everyone a punch on the jaw with movies like The Next Three Days, The A-Team, Clash of the Titans, After Life and Taken. Now, instead of a return to the earlier glory of Schindler’s List, he delivers a dopey, incomprehensible muddle called Unknown–a title that best describes the reason it wasn’t left on the cutting-room floor.

Unknown is a bad movie that starts out as a good movie, then plunges steadily downhill in a pile of head-scratching mush.  In the warp-speed world of contrived thrillers, this one moves along satisfactorily for close to an hour, sucking us into an alternate-reality case of mistaken identity, until it chokes on its own red herrings. In the second hour, there are so many holes in the script it looks like a New York street after a snowplow. Mr. Neeson plays a noted scientist from New Hampshire named Dr. Martin Harris who arrives in snowy Berlin with his lovely wife, Liz (January Jones from TV’s Mad Men), to address a global summit on bio-technology. While they are getting into a taxi at the airport, the briefcase containing Dr. Harris’ speech is left on the curb. While Liz is checking them into the posh Kempinski Hotel, he remembers the missing bag and without telling his wife simply grabs another taxi to the airport that plunges from a bridge into an icy river. When he awakens in the hospital after a four-day coma without any memory or identification, a sympathetic nurse tries to help. Arriving at the hotel, he finds Liz with another man (Aidan Quinn) who has claimed his identity. “Liz, I’m sorry, I was in an accident, they didn’t know who I was,” he pants, to which his wife coldly replies, “Excuse me … do I know you?” Returning to the hospital, his kind nurse recommends a friend who specializes in finding missing persons, and is then murdered by the mysterious figure who has been stalking him in the subway.       

Now Martin is not only a man without a passport, but a hunted murder suspect in a strange country. (He doesn’t know his name, but he knows the foreign dialing codes, always has the correct change and never runs out of money in either American dollars or German marks.) To prove his identity, he turns to the person whose address is scrawled on a piece of paper in his coat–a former member of the East German secret police–and the Bosnian cab driver (Diane Kruger, from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds) who pulled him from the river and is now hiding from the police as an illegal immigrant. Enter Dr. Harris’ best friend from New Hampshire (Frank Langella), who brutally murders the retired Communist agent (huh?), as well as a gang of villains straight out of an old Nazi picture starring the Bowery Boys. It’s amazing how everyone in Berlin suddenly speaks fluent English. When the terrorists (who knock off half of Berlin for unexplained reasons) burst into Ms. Kruger’s apartment, where Mr. Neeson is hiding out, he’s in the shower naked, but by the time they burst into the bathroom, he’s climbing over the roof in the snow, apparently wet and barefoot, but unfazed. By now, Unknown has turned inadvertently into a comedy. Careening through the traffic in a city he’s never been in, but knowing exactly where he’s going, the doctor discovers there is no such person as Dr. Martin Harris, his enigmatic wife and the man who has stolen his identity are both imposters and even the confused doctor himself is … never mind. Just rest assured that each time you think you’ve got it all figured out, there’s always another preposterous plot twist on the way.

I can fully understand why gorgeous January Jones would want to parlay her success on Mad Men into a big-screen career, but Unknown is not the movie that is going to do it. Lamely directed by Spain’s Jaume Collet-Serra from a script by Hollywood hacks Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell that borders on dementia, this scrambled  chaos has not one two-minute segment that holds up under even the most basic scrutiny. No movie stops making sense in postproduction–jabberwocky begins with the screenplay. Unknown makes no sense at all, so you not only worry about Liam Neeson’s judgment in movies, but you begin to wonder if he’s forgotten how to read.   


Running time 106 minutes

Written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones


Movie Review: “Unknown” is Better Left That Way