In popular culture, the presence of an American in Europe usually leads to either romance or intrigue. Unknown favors the latter, embracing the inherent xenophobia of the situation (namely, an American with amnesia in Europe) and setting this tale of suspicion against the backdrop of the historically troubled Berlin.
For two-thirds of the running time, Liam Neeson is certain that he is Dr. Martin Harris, in town for a biotech conference and the victim of a car accident that saw him and cab driver Gina (Diane Kruger) plummeting off a bridge and into a coma. After waking up, Martin returns to his wife (January Jones, wooden as ever), who doesn’t recognize him and has already found herself a replacement husband (Aidan Quinn), one with the proper documentation to prove himself as the real Dr. Martin Harris.
Of course, we know that Neeson must be right, because ever since the breakout success of Taken, he has embraced his newfound action star status. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has already proven himself a steady hand at handling fundamentally pulpy material on screen (his previous efforts include House of Wax and the gloriously nutty Orphan), and he easily manages to make Martin’s circumstances as foreboding as possible, working in smooth camera tilts whenever confusion arises and constantly evoking the no-man’s-land atmosphere of a place that cannot house you, of people who refuse to claim you. There are blondes that our hero can and cannot trust, apprehensive authorities, suspicious strangers on the street, and while the 6’4” leading man hardly seems vulnerable on the streets of Berlin, his wounded and disoriented demeanor is enough to earn the viewer’s benefit of the doubt.
The proceedings eventually shift gears from slightly Hitchcockian to something a little more Bourne-like, with car chases, fist fights and explosions dominating the initial identity intrigue. But for every conventional tough-guy one-liner uncomfortably shoehorned into the climax, there’s an earlier, wonderfully simple back-and-forth between a private investigator (played by Bruno Ganz) and a colleague of Martin’s (played by Frank Langella) that any other film would omit for the sake of streamlining the narrative, though at the risk of eliminating the echoes of history that resonate within any decent paranoid thriller. Unknown may eventually surrender to convention and implausibility in equal measure, but until then, Collet-Serra grounds the conspiracy with a proper sense of mystery and mood.
Flavio Labiano’s steely cool cinematography is well-served by the Blu-ray transfer, and complimented nicely throughout by John Ottman and Alexander Rudd’s restrained yet sinister score. The disc’s special features are limited to a pair of fluffy featurettes – one about Neeson’s recent career resurgence and the other about the film overall – that run hardly five minutes a piece and yet still share material.