"Urgency" in the movies can be a product of editing or a consequence of fine acting. It's that sense when there is a ticking clock working against our hero, that a matter of life or death, love or loss is at stake.
Think of Pierce Brosnan's breathless sprints away from explosions in his James Bond outings, Melissa Leo's desperation in Frozen River or Liam Neeson's manic hunt for his kidnapped daughter in Taken.
That urgency is missing in Neeson's latest, Unknown, a tricky thriller about a man who awakens from a brief coma and finds that his identity has been stolen. He's been replaced in work, in life and in his young wife's bed.
"Liz," he pleads. "It's me. Martin! Your husband!"
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You have to buy into that early moment in Unknown. Neeson's character, botanist Martin Harris, has been in a car accident in Berlin. When he wakes up and returns to his hotel, his frosty blonde bride (January Jones) greets him with a look of confusion and ... we can't decide what else. Jones, typecast after Mad Men, seems in on a conspiracy to remove Martin No. 1 and replace him with Martin No. 2 (Aidan Quinn). And nothing Neeson or the A-to-B range Jones does suggests loss, longing or urgency.
The Harrises have traveled to Berlin for a big biotech conference. But a misplaced briefcase and a taxi accident separated them. Martin is without briefcase, without passport, without ID. Somehow, he has a pocketful of cash. And when the wife gives him the cold shoulder and hotel security gives him one long incredulous look, he sets out to find out what happened and somebody who can prove he is who he says he is.
Diane Kruger is the Bosnian immigrant cab driver who saved his life and starts to buy into his story. Wonderful Bruno Ganz is an aged, wheezing and whimsical ex-Stasi agent who makes a few inquiries. And long, long before we're told what's going on, we know what's going on.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra is more at home in horror (House of Wax, Orphan), so the jolts here work better than any attempt he makes at ratcheting up suspense or creating a sense that anything's at stake. It's a solid, engrossing thriller, but a slack one.
But you can feel the possibilities presented by Didier Van Cauwelaert's source novel and by the casting. Neeson established his man "with a very particular set of skills" credentials with Taken. He's just supposed to be a doctor here, but he survives repeated attempts on his life and a wild car chase as if he's Jason Bourne reborn. Kruger has matured into a decent actress after her eye-candy-nothing-more debut in Troy. And Jones might yet show that she has what it takes to register on the big screen. Hitchcock would have adored her, but she has to bring more to the party than beady-eyed stares.
A paranoid thriller has to be more paranoid than this, with far more urgency to it, to work. And when the director's not up to it, it falls to the actors to pick up the slack. In Unknown, we never get that pulse-pounding rush that reassures us that much is at stake, because the players don't convince us that there is.