Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Written by Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell, and Didier Van Cauwelaert (book), 113 minutes, Rated PG-13.
By our guest blogger, Matt Schimkowitz
The accidental spy genre, born from films such as “The Third Man” and “The 39 Steps,” rests on the idea that secret agent in question doesn’t know what they are doing. Suddenly thrust into a convoluted situation, usually while on vacation, the protagonist searches for answers in a confusing and hostile new world, using their limited resources in a bizarre setting, creating tension, humor and excitement.
The latest Liam Neeson thriller, “Unknown,” deviates from these conventions a bit but removes some of the excitement. Director Jaume Collet-Serra ignores the genre’s strengths and orchestrates a production that bores more often than it thrills. Neeson and his co-stars realize this early and phone it in until the third act.
On trip to the Bio-Technology Summit in snowy Berlin, Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) finds himself in a bit of a pickle. After a car accident, Harris falls into a coma and awakens to find his identity usurped by another Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) and his wife of five years (January Jones) playing along. With his identity in crisis and his German lackluster, Harris searches out the cabbie that crashed his car for answers.
Things continue to escalate as Harris and his Russian cab-driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), employ a private detective (Bruno Ganz) and Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), Martin’s old friend and colleague for help; however, the more they uncover the more confusing the mystery becomes.
Collet-Serra keeps things decidedly quiet throughout much of the film’s runtime. Neeson barks and complains but keeps his cool in the face of danger. His director takes a more classical approach, resting on quick chases and Dutch angles to do his dirty work. The action appears in spurts but fails to disorient the viewer in a significant way.
“Unknown”’s dignified approach does a disservice for the ready-for-action Neeson. The constrained animal of “Taken” carried his gritty voice convincingly, but here, he appears bored and frustrated. January Jones and Frank Langella don’t fare much better – their stilted performances offer little to the convoluted plotting.
The spy genre benefits from the levity that a couple of laughs and explosions deliver. Hitchcock understood the former, while contemporary directors like Paul Greengrass get the latter. “Unknown” traps itself by taking things too seriously, and with a plot this ridiculous, there’s no reason to say “I remember how to kill you” with a straight face.