Hitchcock devotees walking into Jaume Collet-Serra's Unknown, I suspect, will have the option of watching one of two films — an ultimately derivative B-movie starring Liam Neeson, or a cunning meta-movie that exists solely to verify if the master's thrillers are still operational in the Bourne era. Let's discuss the latter first. Like Paul Newman in Torn Curtain, Neeson (who plays Martin Harris, a biotechnologist) is an American scientist who slips into Germany, into grave danger, gets mixed up with the Stasi, and is helped by a local with a too-colourful accent (Lila Kedrova there, a much younger and much slimmer Diane Kruger here; apparently, you cannot have women of a certain age in the movies anymore).
The Hitchcockian set piece (in intent, if not in execution)? Neeson strolls through an exhibition of human faces (and what better symbolism could serve the story of a man who's lost his identity, forgetting who he is after a coma?), trailing the woman he loves more than life and being tailed by a man who wants him dead.
Transplant the itinerant American from Germany to Morocco, transform the protagonist from scientist to doctor, and you get The Man Who Knew Too Much. Now the question is whether Neeson or James Stewart will gather their wits in time to prevent the assassination of a political figure. A more committed Hitchcock scholar could go on, I suppose, beginning with the fact that the story revolves around someone who is confused if he is indeed who he thinks he is, and whose story, therefore, could easily be filmed as... The Wrong Man.
But let's turn our attention, now, to the first movie, the derivative B-movie starring Liam Neeson. Hitchcock's templates are so primal, so powerful that even if a present-day filmmaker cannot hope to match the emotional effects, he can still strive to emulate the clack-clack-clack thriller mechanisms. The extent to which Unknown remains watchable — if not quite nail-bitingly so — is a result of the reality that you have to be really bad and try really hard to screw this stuff up. This director isn't, and he doesn't — and given the setup, the story practically coasts along on autopilot.
The beginning, though, suggests a better movie. As Neeson steps out of the warm cocoon of his plane and into the sidewalks of Berlin, he is greeted by thick flurries of snow — through a single visual, he is thrown from the calm to the storm, just as his life will be thrown from order to chaos. This elegance is matched nowhere else, though the leading man does impart his customary touch of class. Neeson has become the most unlikely action star — though not unexpectedly, with that battering-ram body and that world-weary face that looks reshaped by a thousand blows — and he seems to be specialising in thrillers that look awfully like better thrillers made by better directors. Taken, where his all-American daughter was abducted in Paris, was but a few degrees separated from Frantic, Polanski's Hitchcockian thriller of an American — a doctor (like James Stewart) attending a conference (like Paul Newman) — whose wife was abducted in Paris.
But he fills out these parts well and is particularly convincing in his transformation from have to have-not (which is a prerequisite of these films; first, the man has it all; then everything is taken away till he makes things right again). The film's finest scene, however, unfolds in his absence, and in the presence of two old men whose calm acceptance of their destinies makes a mockery of the huffing and puffing of everyone around. They spar simply with words and the wisdom of ages. This, you come away thinking, is what being a man of action is all about.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones
Storyline: A man awakens from a coma and suspects that his identity has been stolen.
Bottomline: Derivative, undemanding entertainment