In the French-made, English-language sleeper Taken, Liam Neeson was a former CIA operative who was (outlandishly) able to thwart a sex-trafficking ring. Audiences responded vociferously to his take-charge character. His latest film, Unknown, was also made in Europe—this time, Berlin—by Spanish-born director Jaume Collet-Serra, and it casts the reliable actor in a role that couldn’t be more different. In this yarn, he loses control of his life, or to be more specific, his identity.
The very Hitchcockian story was taken from a novel by the prolific French author Didier Van Cauwelaert called Out of My Head, adapted by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell (who is the son of David John Moore Cornwell, better known as spy novelist John le Carré). Neeson plays an American college professor who arrives in Berlin with his wife (January Jones) to attend an international conference on biotechnology. But before he can even check into his hotel, a mishap causes him to—
—take a taxi ride, which ends in a catastrophic accident and robs him of his memory. When he regains his mental equilibrium, no one recognizes him—not even his wife. That’s where the plot thickens.
Unknown makes all the right moves, and keeps the viewer guessing its secrets at every twist and turn. It features a good supporting cast including Aidan Quinn, Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz, and Frank Langella. The scenery is fresh (at least, to my American eyes) and there are some terrific chase scenes staged on the streets and rooftops of Berlin.
And yet, there’s something missing. As curious as I was to watch the story unravel, and learn the answers to its puzzling questions, I never felt emotionally connected. The actors go through their paces, and the director seems to be on top of the story, but I never developed the level of involvement or rooting interest I should have had. (Even in one of Hitchcock’s “lesser” films, Saboteur (1942), you care about the fate of innocent Robert Cummings and want to see him vindicated.)
As a piece of forgettable escapist entertainment, Unknown isn’t bad. But with so many of the right ingredients seemingly in place, I can’t help but feel that it should have been better.