By a simple chance of fate, Martin's cab ride goes significantly south when an accident on the freeway causes the car to plunge off the road and into a nearby river. He wakes up four days later in a hospital, alone, and promptly checks himself out to find his surely-worried wife. But when he returns to the hotel, she claims she's never seen him before. She admits to being the wife of Dr. Martin Harris, but alas Neeson is not him.
It's tough to pull off psychological mystery. You're either constantly toeing the suspension of disbelief or just being purposely obtuse. But here the actors are good and I believed their situation; good acting cannot save a bad film, but it can do wonders for a sort-of good one, which this is.
Neeson's performance is both incredulous and skeptical - of course he's remembering things correctly...isn't he? - and the presence of Diane Kruger as the fleeing cab driver afraid of emigration is a credible companion for Neeson. There is something about Kruger that elevates the films she is in. Is there another actress who can so believably play young and naïve and old and weathered at the same time? Maybe Nicole Kidman.
Unfortunately, Unknown is only half-interested in playing memory games. Liam Neeson as an action star is a new development in a long career, and following on the heels of the curveball hit Taken (2008), it makes sense for the actor to follow the development where it leads. Unknown rapidly becomes less about figuring out why things are happening than it is about surviving the moment. The hybrid of mystery and action is similar to that of the French film Tell No One (Ne les dis a personne, 2006), which also paired a need-to-know situation with fast-paced pursuits and intrigue. But, while Unknown is initially considerate of its mystery, it ultimately compromises its heady origins for guns and car chases.
Not that it's a bad thing to have guns and car chases, I love guns and car chases. But I prefer that they emerge organically, and it was disappointing to see characters that I was invested in begin to crack that suspension of disbelief. Kudos to Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra; the man is very good at spinning plates. But the script just doesn't make enough room for its characters in the second half. Unknown treats many of its characters like chess pieces (including an eleventh-hour appearance by Frank Langella) and when it comes time for unraveling the yarn the results, however plausible, are unsatisfying. The undemanding finale doesn't undermine the power of what preceded it (*cough* TheLastExorcism *cough*) but it's enough to dull the experience.
Let's choose sides: is film about the destination or the journey? I'm often willing to pretend to have selective memory. Whether or not Unknown originated on the back of a feeble conceit, the resulting experience combines good acting, directing and pacing into a captivating mash that will likely make you pretty forgiving of its conventional conclusion.