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Should I Watch..? 'Unknown' (2011)

Updated on April 7, 2022
Benjamin Cox profile image

Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!

Promotional poster for "Unknown"
Promotional poster for "Unknown" | Source

What's the big deal?

Unknown is an action psychological thriller film released in 2011 and is based on the 2003 French novel Out Of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert. The film was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (who would later direct star Liam Neeson in Non-Stop and Run All Night) and the film's cast includes Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella. The film concerns a man waking up in Berlin after four days in a coma and finding that his wife has no memory of him and an imposter posing in his place. Despite mixed reviews, the film was successful at the box office with global takings in excess of $136 million. It also further established Neeson as a bankable action star after his success in the Taken series.


3 stars for Unknown

What's it about?

Dr Martin Harris arrives in Berlin for a biotechnology conference along with his younger wife Liz. After checking into the hotel, Martin discovers that he's left his briefcase at the airport and catches a taxi back to retrieve it. Unfortunately, the taxi is involving in an accident and it plunges into the Spree river. The taxi driver, illegal immigrant Gina, rescues him but flees from the scene as Martin drifts into unconsciousness. He later wakes up in hospital and is distraught to learn that four days have passed by.

Returning to the hotel, Martin is astonished to find Liz with another man - a man also claiming to be Dr Martin Harris - and claiming not to know him. With the imposter having passports and even family photos proving his identity, Martin begins to question his sanity but realises that his only hope lies in tracking down Gina who might be able to provide him with answers. But with dark forces on his trail and killers apparently out to stop him, can Martin solve the mystery before he's completely erased?


What's to like?

If anyone watched Taken and wished that the film had a bit less violence and a bit more story then Unknown might just float your boat. The film's initial set-up is extremely promising as an increasingly desperate Neeson drifts through Berlin's more picturesque spots whilst dispatching various baddies. Neeson, who maintains the same mean Irish persona that made Taken so watchable, is in enjoyable form here as Harris whose quest for the truth puts himself and others in danger. Jones also does well as the suddenly forgetful wife whose allure and mystery only deepen as the movie progresses.

Like its star, the film borrows heavily from Neeson's earlier foray into Europe with action scenes that are exciting and well executed - if slightly derivative. Berlin itself is also an excellent location for this sort of film - the locations and wintery weather combine to bring an unexpected Cold War vibe to the picture that suits it well. It's an easy film to sit back and enjoy, providing you don't think too hard about it - the film is totally reliant on handy coincidences and stretches plausibility to breaking point.

Neeson (right) is in full-on "Taken" mode in "Unknown"...
Neeson (right) is in full-on "Taken" mode in "Unknown"... | Source

Fun Facts

  • Olivier Schneider, who played the assassin Smith in the film, was also a stunt coordinator. He also served as the stunt coordinator on Taken.
  • Although many of the supporting cast were German, Kruger (who is also German herself) plays a non-German character.
  • According to the character's passport, Martin Harris was born on the 7th June - the exact same day as star Liam Neeson.

What's not to like?

And I'm afraid that in the end, the film is just too derivative. Anyone who has seen the likes of The Bourne Identity will know exactly what to expect here because the film feels like a gigantic rip-off of the Robert Ludlum thriller. And because we've gotten used to Neeson playing these kind of roles, the film lacks any sort of surprise when it finally begins to give up its secrets. Worse still, the film contains nothing we haven't already seen many times before - cars plunge into rivers and hitmen pop up with automatic weapons whenever the lead character thinks he's safest. How dangerous does Hollywood think European capital cities actually are?

It's very annoying that Unknown chooses to play it so safe after such an intriguing first half. In the end, it gives up trying to tell a decent story and settles for being a predictably violent thriller that rejects characterisation and goes for brutality and a high body count. The moment the truth gets revealed, I found my interest in the picture getting up and walking out in disgust. What started out as an intelligent and gripping drama became just another throwaway shooter for Neeson to get his grizzled chops into. Rarely have I been let down so badly by a picture.

Let's be honest, nothing good ever comes from waking up next to a dead doctor...
Let's be honest, nothing good ever comes from waking up next to a dead doctor... | Source

Should I watch it?

The phrase "missed opportunity" comes up a lot in film criticism but never has it been more apt than it is here. Unknown could and perhaps should have been a real classic if it had the guts to stick to its intriguing premise and not imitate so many other films of this nature. It's just too similar to a whole raft of pictures that feature people getting up to all sorts of mayhem in Europe plus it has the gall to waste such a promising opening. As a disposable action flick, it does the job but it could have been so much more...

Great For: fans of the Taken trilogy, Neeson's action-man reputation, Berlin's tourism industry

Not So Great For: anyone expecting a well-written thriller, plot-hole spotters, American tourists

What else should I watch?

Apart from the films I've already mentioned? Well, Ronin is a late-90's thriller featuring Robert De Niro teaming up with Jean Reno in Paris to battle Irish terrorists and shady Russians over a very important briefcase. A touch too many car chases for some but when they are as good as they are in Ronin, you don't care that much. Also set in France, The Transporter is a bit more comic-book in tone as Jason Statham's meat-headed hero battles people smugglers in sunny Marseilles. And after their initial jaunt in Paris, The Bourne Supremacy takes the same formula back to Berlin and other places as amnesiac super-spy Matt Damon discovers more about his background.

But if I had to recommend one film about amnesia then it has to be Memento, a brilliantly written and expertly crafted film from some chap called Christopher Nolan (who would go on to make arguably the best superhero trilogy of all time, The Dark Knight trilogy). Memento features a man who is suffering from short-term memory loss. Unable to make memories last more than a few moments, he sets out to track down his wife's killer by tattooing clues onto his body. With the film's chronology running backwards, it's an interesting and exciting film to watch but unlike Unknown, it's a virtual one-off and far more intriguing.

Main Cast

Liam Neeson
Dr. Martin Harris
January Jones
Elizabeth "Liz" Harris
Diane Kruger
Aidan Quinn
Alternative Martin Harris
Bruno Ganz
Ernst Jürgen
Frank Langella
Professor Rodney Cole

Technical Info

Jaume Collet-Serra
Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell *
Running Time
113 minutes
Release Date (UK)
4th March, 2011
Action, Mystery, Thriller

* based on the novel "Out Of My Head" by Didier Van Cauwelaert

© 2016 Benjamin Cox


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