Jaume Collet-Serra | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Canada, France, Germany, Japan, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13
Following the surprise success of Taken, Liam Neeson again finds himself in action man mode as an American caught up in a Europe-set thriller. This time he’s some kind of scientist travelling to a conference with his wife, when he’s caught in a car accident. Managing to return to the hotel, he finds his wife doesn’t know him and there’s someone else who says they are him…
As premises go it’s an intriguing one; the kind of thing that gets you on board and you have no idea how they might satisfactorily resolve. That makes a change when most films, especially thriller and action movies, play out a string of interchangeable but familiar beats. In the film’s special features, producer Leonard Goldberg talks about how, having made thrillers his whole life, when he starts reading or watching them he can usually figure it all out early on, but the novel on which Unknown is based managed to surprise him. Thinking if it could surprise him it might surprise others too, he snapped up the rights, and I must say I think he was right. Additional kudos to the distributors for keeping any hint of those twists out of the marketing — a rare feat these days. (Well, if they were there, I didn’t pick up on them.)
That said, it’s all a bit implausible, but I suppose no worse than many other entries in the action-thriller genre. It’s only the fairly realistic setup that throws you off the scent — if you were aware of developments from the post-twist third act, and therefore the tone that pitches, the whole thing would be more acceptable from the outset. I’ve seen other reviews and viewer comments criticise this ending, but personally I thought that was when it got good, kicking into a higher gear and retrospectively making the iffy earlier bits make a lot more sense. Plus it’s where you’ll find some of what the film does best: Frank Langella turning up briefly for one great scene with YouTube’s Hitler (aka Bruno Ganz) and a cool exit; a really good car chase; and a couple of solid punch-ups, including a particularly good one at the climax.
This variability left me torn as to rating — and, more importantly, what that rating is used as a signifier for: an overall impression of the film. I was thinking 3 for most of it — a passable if occasionally plodding identity thriller with a mite too much coincidence and believability-stretching. But the impressively and pleasurably unforeseen twist casts the entire movie in a new light, and for the enjoyment that gave I’m tempted up towards a 4. In the end, maybe the answer lies in your view of how to judge a movie’s quality: is it how you felt towards it as it played out, or is it looking back at the totality of the experience afterwards? Both are valid approaches, and in the majority of films would probably result in the same opinion. But some films have a changes-everything-you’ve-seen twist, and by changing everything you’ve seen it might change your opinion; it would certainly change your experience on any subsequent viewings. Unknown certainly has one of those twists.
The other way, the way that makes all criticism an art rather than a science, is in how you feel. While I was unconvinced for much of the running time, the surprises turned Unknown into a flawed but enjoyable film that has appeal to any fan of a good thriller. That might merit an extra star; stick with it and you might even agree; but thinking back on it a while later, the earlier parts overshadow things. Maybe a second viewing would change my opinion, but for now it feels like 3.