To the odd sub-genre of thrillers with one-word titles featuring stoic, lost, but brutally determined American men on unexpected missions through Europe, we can now add the reasonably entertaining Unknown. Its memory-meltdown protagonist is played by Liam Neeson—who, of course, kicked plenty of asses and dispensed justice in Taken, searching madly for his abducted daughter, transatlantically. Similarly, Harrison Ford, another minimalist actor who gets jobs done, tooled around Paris and lived up to the title in Roman Polanski’s Frantic.
With Unknown, the filmmakers up the ante of alienation and culture clash—a vital element in what makes these movies exotic and potentially titillating—by throwing into question the very identity of our hero. This layered thriller involves a biotech conference in Berlin, assassination plots, skullduggery at high and deep levels, and a crash victim’s personal wrestling match with his own memory and identity. Hey, what better locale than the hip, historically loaded city of Berlin to set such a diabolical maze of a plot? It’s almost too neat a choice, but offers apt scenery aplenty.
In a role which has some of Guy Pearce’s dramatically charged befuddlement in the mix, Neeson’s shtick can get a bit wearying. His mild manners can be set in sudden relief when paired with a more dynamic thespian, as happens with the arrival of Bruno Ganz. As an aging former member of the East German Stasi secret police, Ganz warms up the screen with some human qualities amid the film’s thriller hokum. In one of the too-rare self-referential in-jokes in the script, Ganz’s spy character considers the seeming implausibility in many parts of his new client’s wild-ride story, suggesting that his supposed foes “may be good, but they are not God.”
With its choreographed, successfully visceral chase scenes, sneaky plot knot work, and some token gusts of romantic sentiment (with a female sidekick played by Diane Kruger), Unknown is a fine enough slack-season flick. On its modest terms, it’s an effectively exciting, mind-tweaking game of B-movie Twister.