Unknown is not just a mediocre action movie. It’s actually bad. The thinking must have been: Liam Neeson was awesome in Taken. Let’s put him in another one. What have we got?
We meet Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife Liz (January Jones) vaguely enough as a traveling couple on an airplane and checking into a hotel. Not so close that we assume too much, but definitely established as a couple. Then Martin has to go back to the airport because he left a bag there. Isn’t that the plot of Police Academy V? I mean, without the suitcase switch, but come on!
Martin’s cab has an accident, he wakes up in the hospital and when he goes back to the hotel, Liz doesn’t recognize him and there’s another Dr. Harris (Aidan Quinn). Was everything we saw before a false memory? No, there are dudes trying to kill him so he has to beat them up.
The story only needs to be enough to set up the chase, but it is aggressively stupid. The details that make Martin suspicious are blatantly contrived. He tries to check back into the Eisenhower suite because he wasn’t there when the clerk told Liz it was booked. Martin tries to prove he’s the real Dr. Harris while the imposter recites the exact same backstory simultaneously. It’s like grown men playing that childish game of repeating everything the other one says.
It travels on such a cliché arc, it’s like an episode of “South Park” spoofing a movie like Unknown. When he sees the new Dr. Harris’s photo at the university website, the music practically booms: “Da dun duuuuuuuh!” Also, the U.S. Embassy is closed for Thanksgiving so he can’t clear anything up. Oh, and when the first knock at the door is a friend, the second knock is obviously the bad guys so check the peep hole before you assume your friend came back.
The danger is so banal. Martin escapes from a hospital half drugged by bad guys. It’s more of a stumble than a chase. There’s a crowbar fight, so if men whacking each other with metal rods sounds exciting, this is the movie for you. A car chase through Berlin is no more than a few collisions strung together. In one scene, a villain hides in a van just waiting for a stunt to happen. What’s he hanging around for? He could just get away!
Perhaps the biggest problem is that the film is so focused on how an organization could perpetrate this deception. The how is not interesting. What’s interesting is what it does to someone when their memory is questioned and their life is replaced. Unknown doesn’t explore that (it doesn’t count when Martin gets mad. He doesn’t reflect.) Unknown only uses memory as the plot needs, so Martin can remember a combination at the right time or something, never to build any real suspense.