Is there a school of French filmmakers who specialize in making one-note action movies that I’m unaware of? A few years ago we had TAKEN, starring Liam Neeson. That film was directed by Pierre Morel and co-written by Luc Besson. Last year Morel came out with another action film called FROM PARIS WITH LOVE. Now we have another French director, Jaume Collet-Serra (ORPHAN), with an action film, UNKNOWN, which again stars Liam Neeson. All of these films have retardedly simple premises made for easy consumption by anyone with half a brain. They are forgettable C-grade time stuffers best enjoyed at a Saturday matinee that you hopefully won’t have to pay to see. UNKNOWN may have been such a film, but its filmmakers committed the cardinal sin of breaking the threshold of plausibility by throwing in one unbelievable twist after another. In the end, you are so numbed by UNKNOWN’s insane level of bullshit that your eyes will have glazed over by the end credits and you’ll be leaving the theater in a state of shellshock.

UNKNOWN stars Liam Neeson, who plays Dr. Martin Harris, a well-regarded American scientist who has just arrived in Berlin with his wife to make a presentation at a major conference. When he and his wife arrive at their hotel, Martin realizes that he’s forgotten his briefcase back at the airport so he hails a cab and heads back to the airport. However, on his way there, the cab gets into an accident and plunges into the river. The cabbie (the lovely Diane Kruger from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS) barely gets the unconscious Martin out of the sinking cab and gets him back onshore. After a few days in the hospital where he lies in a coma, Martin wakes up and attempts to get back to his wife. When he rejoins his wife, however, she doesn’t recognize him and Martin discovers that a different man has now assumed his identity. The rest of the movie is spent putting together the hows and whys of Martin’s predicament.

The premise of this movie sort of reminds me of THE FUGITIVE (1993). In that movie, Harrison Ford played Dr. Richard Kimble and he gets wrongfully accused of killing his wife. Like in UNKNOWN, Ford’s character suddenly finds himself removed from his comfortable lifestyle and is being hunted down for reasons unknown (no pun intended) to him. Unlike UNKNOWN, Andrew Davis, the director of THE FUGITIVE, masterfully weaves all the elements of his story into a believable narrative that maintains a high level of suspense and credibility. UNKNOWN lost my interest during its first hour when Liam Neeson fumbles around Berlin trying to figure out why no one he knows is able to recognize him. His character and background are too poorly setup for me to care about whether or not his character will regain his identity. We spend literally 5 minutes at the very beginning of the movie learning that Martin is going to give some speech, that he’s a big deal in his field of practice, and that he’s married to a bitchy woman (January Jones – I guess its fitting that Jones will be playing Emma Frost in the upcoming X-MEN: FIRST CLASS). When Martin begins his investigation regarding his lost/stolen identity, I had no emotional investment in his character to give a shit.

The most glaring annoyance in UNKNOWN is the large number of convenient events that occur throughout the film. Early on in the movie, after Martin’s wife claims to never have seen him and he discovers that another man has assumed his identity (Aidan Quinn), Martin finds his wife and the imposter at a social function in another part of the city. This happens literally a few minutes after he was just escorted out of the hotel where he confronted his wife and the imposter and after he wanders around Berlin wondering what to do next. For a film like this, these types of chance encounters is textbook bad writing and completely unforgiveable. Later in the film, we discover that Martin’s nurse at the hospital just happens to know someone who can find lost identities. The man turns out to be a former Stasi agent (East Germany’s version of the KGB) and he’s able to piece together the answer to the mystery surrounding Martin. Again, this is yet another coincidence that is just too damn convenient and it provides too easy a way out for the filmmakers to resolve their conflicts.

(MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT) Where UNKNOWN really falls off a cliff is when we ultimately find out that Martin is really an operative for a top secret organization that sent him out to kill an Arabian prince. It turns out that the life Martin thought he had was really a cover to get him through the prince’s security so that he could set up a bomb. His wife is really his co-agent and Aidan Quinn’s character is his back-up or alternative in case Martin fails to carry through with his mission. I actually liked this idea, but the problem I had with it is that by the time this gets revealed to us and the story takes a much more interesting turn, the film is almost over. During the majority of the film, Martin is basically a giant pussy who gets his ass kicked by almost everyone. Its not until the end when Martin has regained all his memories and realizes that he’s a bad-ass mofo that he basically turns into his character from TAKEN. I would have preferred to simply have UNKNOWN be a story about an operative who’s sent out to kill a prince instead of this stolen identity crap that we’re given.

The film is not without some noteworthy elements. In particular, we are treated to the fine performances given by the always talented Bruno Ganz (THE READER) and Frank Langella. Ganz plays the ex-Stasi agent and he does a superb job portraying a man who still lives under the shadow of the Cold War era. When Martin approaches him for help, Ganz is all too excited to get back into what he did so well when Germany was still two countries. Langella plays the supervising agent in the secret organization that Martin works for. Langella is perfect for these espionage-type films. The combination of his voice and looks is something you would expect to see in Washington’s intelligence community. So I guess its no surprise to see him cast in a film about secret agents.

What ultimately bugs me about UNKNOWN is that it attempts to be a Hitchcockian thriller without any of the intelligence you would see in most of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. If you approach this film with an analytical frame of mind, you will quickly give up on the film’s blatant irrationalities. If the reason why Martin got replaced by Aidan Quinn’s character was because he “screwed up” by getting into a car accident and falling into a coma, then why didn’t anyone simply take him aside at the hospital and explain that to him? Why allow him to wander around Berlin wondering what is going on? That’s just lame. In the end, we realize that like most of his recent work (TAKEN, THE A-TEAM, CLASH OF THE TITANS), Neeson has relegated himself to taking on work simply to earn a nice paycheck and nothing more.

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