Ask film fanatics to name the inarguable sultan of suspense, the irrefutable titan of tenseness, and the unmitigated master of mystery, and if they know what they are talking about, only one name will emerge from their lips – Alfred Hitchcock. Anyone who has never seen a Hitchcock film, is missing the very epitome that the mystery genre has to offer.
Throughout the years many directors have attempted to match the master’s skill in turning out suspenseful masterpieces, and while some of them have made some very good films, they never quite reach the perfection Hitchcock achieved. That’s not to say there are no exceptional suspense films being made these days, but because Hitchcock set the bar for such movies so high, it’s very difficult for other films in the genre to match that level.
The most recent film in the mystery/suspense genre is “Unknown,” a satisfyingly slick and smooth thriller starring Liam Neeson, January Jones, and Diane Kruger. The film is based upon the novel of the same name by Didier van Cauwelaert and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“Orphan”), who paid homage to Hitchcock in the film’s production notes.
“My favorite films are those Hitchcockian thrillers that have that mysterious atmosphere, where the audience is as much in the dark as the characters, and you don’t really know where the story is going to take you.”
In “Unknown,” Neeson, plays Dr. Martin Harris, a noteworthy botanist who, accompanied by his wife, Liz (Jones), is on his way to Berlin, where he is to make a presentation during a biotechnology summit at the famous Hotel Adlon. When the Harrises arrive at the hotel, Liz goes in to register while Martin waits for the cab driver to unload the luggage, but when he realizes that his briefcase is not with the other bags, he hops into another cab and heads back to the airport.
Martin never makes it to the airport, however, because the cab in which he is riding becomes involved in a serious accident that leaves Martin in a coma for four days. When he awakens, Martin manages to remember his name and ultimately why is in Berlin. Against his doctor’s orders, he checks himself out of the hospital and rushes back to the hotel where his world falls apart. It’s bad enough that no one, including Liz, recognizes him, but a man at Liz’s side claims that he is Martin. Now Martin begins a living nightmare in which he must attempt to recover his purloined identity.
The premise of this film definitely lends itself to the kind of suspense that you find in the movies of Hitchcock. Just when you think you have figured things out, you learn that you are completely wrong. The film succeeds very well in keeping you guessing until the very end, and it also establishes and maintains an effective aura of suspense.
As he did in “Taken” three years ago, Neeson turns in a terrific performance and shows a real flair for feeling comfortable in the action/adventure genre. Shortly after Martin gets out of the hospital and discovers that no one knows him, he does a lot of wandering around as he is trying to figure out what to do next, and this is where Neeson really excels as an actor because you know what he is thinking even though he isn’t speaking. In the production notes, Neeson offered some insight into his character and explained why he could identify with Martin.
“To the audience, Martin Harris seems to have the perfect marriage and an interesting life, but it’s all suddenly shattered in an instant. He is alone and not just abandoned, but rejected by everyone he thinks he knows. And his every impulse makes him more determined to find out the truth and, more importantly, prove he is who he says he is. I totally locked in to what Martin was going through. I was an amateur boxer as a kid, and I got my bell rung a few times. It’s always stayed with me, that memory of not having a memory, even for a short time. It was an interesting life experience to draw on for this role.”
In his effort to figure out what happened to him, Martin must track down the mysterious woman who was driving the cab that crashed with Martin in it. Kruger is excellent in this key role as Gina, and she and Neeson ultimately make a good team as their characters put their lives on the line for each other.
Jones fills a vital role in the film as the cool statuesque blonde, a trademark in many Hitchcock films. Jones succeeds beautifully in imbuing her character with the perfect amount of aloofness that firmly establishes her as an integral part of the mystery.
“Unknown” also features some above-average car chases and several edge-of-your-seat moments. Overall it is a highly entertaining and exciting film with plenty of surprises, but it does have a few loose ends, and so we’ll give it a final score of eight.
This film definitely is suspense thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock’s movies, but lacks the intense musical score and unique camera angles that are among the marks of the master’s brilliance. Nevertheless, the movie is quite good, but would it earn a seal of approval from Hitchcock? Unfortunately that will remain forever unknown.