Had it ended after 80 or 90 minutes, Unknown might have been a fine updating of the classic Hitchcock “wrong man” story—too gimmicky by half, but supported by solid craft, a strong center in Liam Neeson, and plenty of first-rate character actors, including Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz, Aidan Quinn, and Frank Langella. Then it twists, then twists a second and third time, until finally an already-suspect mistaken-identity plot goes completely haywire, and the credibility (and dignity) it so carefully establishes quickly evaporates. Director Jaume Collet-Serra pulled the same funny business in his last feature, the outrageous bad-seed shocker Orphan, but the third-act shenanigans there felt appropriately gonzo. Tacked onto a perfectly respectable thriller, Unknown’s mass of unlikely turns and implausible reveals make the whole film seem retroactively less sophisticated.
On the heels of Taken, Clash Of The Titans, and The A-Team, Neeson continues to embrace his late-career calling as an action hero, and once again outclasses the shoddy vehicle that surrounds him. Sent to Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for an important biotechnology conference, Neeson and his Serbian cab driver (Kruger) get in an accident that leaves Neeson comatose for four days. When he regains consciousness, his memory lags considerably, and his uncertainty about his identity isn’t helped by his lack of documentation. When he goes back to the conference to find his wife, she not only fails to recognize him, but appears with another husband (Quinn) bearing his name. Is he crazy, or is there a conspiracy afoot?
Like most films about amnesia, Unknown plays the condition for narrative convenience, allowing enough memories to move the story forward while holding back on the whoppers. In the early stages, when Neeson is still picking up the pieces, he and Kruger have great chemistry together, helped along by Ganz’s wonderfully hammy turn as a former Stasi officer who comes to their aid. Collet-Serra does his best to incorporate modern action beats into a Hitchcock template—Jones’ Tippi Hedren look is the only thing that accounts for her casting—but he loses control when it counts. Over time, it becomes embarrassingly obvious that Unknown was acting a lot smarter than it turned out to be.