Casting is crucial to a movie. The right lead changes every other aspect of the film, impacting the tone and the way scenes play. The wrong lead will suck the energy out of a movie, leaving what could have been a delight leaden and dull.
Liam Neeson is the wrong lead for Unknown. What’s worse, he doesn’t seem to care; bringing one boring level of gruff intensity to every scene, Neeson is unmodulated and uninterested in creating anything subtle. Which sounds weird when talking about a big, ultimately dumb movie like Unknown, but if Jaume Collet-Serra’s last film, the incredible The Orphan, proves one thing it’s that his special brand of lunacy needs strong, subtle actors to play it.
Neeson is a biochemist come to Berlin for a very important meeting; a chance car accident lands him in the hospital and when he awakes he discovers everything has gone wrong. His wife doesn’t know him, another man has taken his place, and two dudes are trying to kill him. It’s all exceptionally Hitchcockian - the innocent man caught up in a confusing and reality-bending web of conspiracies - but Collet-Serra doesn’t seem interested in being Hitchcockian.
What Collet-Serra is looking forward to is the crazy third act stuff; in The Orphan he derailed the movie slowly and throughout the running time, but in Unknown he’s only able to derail it at the end. I think he knows exactly what he’s doing - there’s a silly scene where a character is killed when the van he’s in is pushed off a parking structure semi-accidentally, and there’s a really silly moment where a character is killed in an explosion that’s shot for maximum comedic effect. After The Orphan (and to a large extent House of Wax) I suspect that Collet-Serra skips past the meat of scripts to get to the weird moments, the odd little touches that he can really expand upon.
And so lots of the first two acts of the film feel rote; the first act, especially, is edited within an inch of its life (although once all of the reveals are made you understand more why the opening scenes are so quick. It makes eventual plot sense, but remains cinematically jarring). Neeson stomps through it all, growling and grimacing, trying to find that line where shock is anger is confusion is despair so that he never has to change his expression.
Equally void is January Jones; it seems as though the repressed, cold Betty Draper is the perfect role for her, since she’s incapable of doing much else. Diane Kruger is a little better. She’s given the thankless role of being Neeson’s mostly unnecessary side kick (she performs nearly zero plot function) and sort of love interest. Kruger has a feisty energy, and there’s a scene where she’s considering seducing Neeson that is great because it’s weird (which is Collet-Serra’s hallmark) and she’s fun.
There are two power players in the movie. The first is Bruno Ganz as a proud ex-Stasi officer who now does PI work. Neeson’s character hires him to get to the bottom of everything (which it turns out he doesn’t need to do), and Ganz is great in the part. It’s one of those small supporting roles that leaves you thinking ‘I’d rather see a movie with that character!’
The other power player is Frank Langella, playing a character all but named Johnny Exposition. He shows up to explain the entire film to Neeson (which is weird because the Ganz character should have served that function, you’d think) and then leave the movie. But there’s something about Langella that’s perfect for these pleasantly threatening roles, like in The Box. He’s the perfect guy to show up in a nice suit and be polite and then quietly murder you. I don’t think Langella’s really doing all that much work, but he’s a great example of the right actor plugged in the right hole.
Finally act three comes and reveals are made and things get wonky. I am sure that screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, working from a novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert, thought they were making “Hitchcock Does The Bourne Identity,” but I’m not sure that’s what Collet-Serra was making. The third act stuff is the most fun, and where things get really implausible and broad, and where I enjoyed myself the most.
I think with a better, looser lead Unknown could have been great. I don’t know what Neeson’s new action career is all about, but he doesn’t seem to be working that hard at it. Unknown needed a lead who showed vulnerability and humanity just a little bit more. It also needed to let Collet-Serra loose earlier; the assassins chasing Neeson and Kruger needed to be weirder, or the action scenes needed to be more unique.
As it stands Unknown is fine. It knows when it’s being stupid, and it’s happy to be so, but it could have been so much more. I actually think that Collet-Serra’s weirdness would have made the film more in line with great Hitchcock, which is often slyly funny and tongue in cheek. Sometimes Unknown’s tongue is so firmly in cheek that the audience doesn’t even realize there’s a joke happening. And surely nobody told Neeson where to place his tongue, either.