“Urgency” in the movies can be a product of editing or a consequence of very fine acting. It’s that sense that there is a ticking clock working against our hero, that a matter of life or death, love or loss is at stake.
Think of Pierce Brosnan’s breathless sprints away from explosions in his James Bond outings, Melissa Leo’s desperation in “Frozen River” or Liam Neeson’s manic hunt for his kidnapped daughter in “Taken.”
That urgency is missing in Neeson’s latest, a tricky thriller about a man who awakens from a brief coma and finds his identity has been stolen. He’s been replaced in work, in life and in his young wife’s bed.
“Liz,” he pleads. “It’s me. Martin!. Your husband!”
You have to buy into that early moment in “Unknown.” Dr. Martin Harris, a botanist, has been in a Berlin car accident. When he wakes up and returns to his hotel, his frosty blond bride (January Jones) greets him with a look of confusion and…we can’t decide what else. Jones, typecast after “Mad Men,” seems in on a conspiracy to remove Martin 1 and replace him with Martin 2 (Aidan Quinn). And nothing Neeson or the A-B range Jones do suggest loss, longing or urgency.
The Harrises have traveled to Berlin for a big bio-tech conference. But a misplaced briefcase and a taxi accident separated them. Martin is without briefcase, without passport, without ID. Somehow, he has a pocketful of cash. And when the wife gives him the cold shoulder and hotel security gives him one long incredulous look, he sets out to find out what happened and somebody who can prove he is who he says he is.
Diane Kruger is the Bosnian immigrant cab driver who saved his life and who starts to buy into his story. The wonderful Bruno Ganz is an aged, wheezing and whimsical ex-Stasi agent who makes a few inquiries. And long LONG before we’re told what’s going on we know what’s going on.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra is more at home in horror (“House of Wax,” “Orphan”), so the jolts here work better than any attempt he makes at ratcheting up suspense or creating a sense that anything’s at stake. It’s a solid, engrossing thriller, but a slack one.
But you can feel the possibilities presented by Didier Van Cauwelaert’s source novel and by the casting. Neeson established his man “with particular skills” credentials with “Taken.” He’s just supposed to be a doctor here, but he survives repeated attempts on his life and a wild car chase as if he’s Jason Bourne re-born. Kruger has matured into a decent actress after her eye-candy-nothing more debut in “Troy.” And the frosty Jones may yet show she has what it takes to register on the big screen. Hitchcock would have adored her. But she’s got to bring more to the party than beady-eyed stares.
A paranoid thriller has to be more paranoid than this, with far more urgency to it, to work. And when the director’s not up to it, then it falls to the actors to pick up the slack. In “Unknown,” we never get that pulse-pounding rush that reassures us that much is at stake because the players don’t convince us that there is.
See for Yourself
Cast: Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Aidan Quinn
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Running time:1 hour 53 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content.