Set against the backdrop of present day Berlin, Unknown offers Liam Neeson another chance to flex his action chops, starring as Dr. Martin Harris – or so his character thinks. After traveling to Europe with his wife (January Jones), Harris is caught in a terrible taxi cab accident. When he awakens from a coma a few days later, he finds that any trace of his existence has been erased and that another man has taken his very identity. Teaming with the only connection to his previous life, the woman driving the taxi (Diane Kruger), Harris must solve the mystery, risking his very sanity.
“In a nutshell,” Neeson explains, “I would say that it’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller with kind of an homage thrown in towards Alfred Hitchcock and movies of that ilk in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.”
Behind the camera is director Jaume Collet-Serra, the man responsible for the similarly pulp-oriented Orphan in 2009. With Unknown, Collet-Serra adapts Didier Van Cauwelaert 2004 French novel, “Out of My Head,” told in the first person from Harris’ confused post-accident mind.
“The book itself was an interior monologue,” offers screenwriter Stephen Cornwell (who adapted the book with Oliver Butcher), “It has the barest sort of skeleton of a thriller plot and is really a sort of exploration of identity… We thought that, if we could find a sort of thriller plot that surrounds that, we could give it the requisite amount of action and ramp up the stakes of Martin’s character for every stage of the movie.”
Joking that he keeps physically fit for action heavy roles by having “lots of sex,” Neeson recalls that his youth spent as an amateur boxer keeps him prepared for some very intense shooting schedules.
“I seem to have a new lease on life thanks to the fact that ‘Taken’ was so successful,” he laughs, “At the age of 58… I get to be an action hero.”
Added to the long hours and the physically draining action scenes, the actors had to put up with the chilly Berlin winter. The January and February during which the film was shot ended up the coldest the city has experienced in two decades. Luckily for the actors, the film’s first big action sequence, which features Kruger’s character’s taxi cab crashing into an icy river, was doubled in a heated tank. For Neeson, though, acting in the water provided more anxiety than he had anticipated.
“It was very, very scary for me,” the actor recalls, “I worked with [stunt double] Mark [Vanselow] in a tank and in a swimming pool. I’m not a very strong swimmer. In fact, I came to water very late and learned to swim at the age of 20. But Mark is an amazing friend and an amazing stuntman. There were lots of days when we would meet in the swimming pool. I would put my head six inches under and, when we shot the scene, it was half a cab. Jaume wanted it to gradually sink into the heated tank. I’m sitting in the back and was confident enough with Mark literally there with the mask, as I knew he would be. I’m pretending to be unconscious and just feeling the water coming up, knowing everybody is there. Once it got to there, I just panicked. Panicked… Because I wasn’t in control. That was basically it. So Mark talked me through. I took deep breaths and lowered myself into the seat, which was much, much easier to do.”
“Well, I’m not as scared of water,” brags Diane Kruger, “But there does come a point where it’s very tiring… There was one shot that [Jaume] added that wasn’t supposed to be me, but I’m glad that I did it because you really can see that it’s me. It felt like an accomplishment and was fun to do. That whole sequence came out very, very cool.”
Far from the only car-based action in the film, Jaume points out that the entire production scrapped about fifteen to twenty Mercedes Benz and that nearly forty were employed in total for the production. Set pieces in the film move from auto chases to up close and personal fights, choreographed by Olivier Schneider, who faced the challenge of making the fights look, as Neeson puts it “scrappy.”
“It was pretty tough, running around in the cold and the ice,” adds Kruger, whose character’s physical intensity matches Neeson’s own, “Not that easy, sometimes, but I enjoyed it. I wanted to play a character that was very physical. I like that she had her own story going on and that she’s actually saving Liam’s life… it’s pretty rare to actually get a female character with her own backstory and an reason for why she would help the male protagonist. I thought that was interesting and it gave it a bit of depth. For me, as an actress, it was something to bring to the story without me weighing it down that tied it all together and gave it a great balance. It wasn’t your regular ‘run with him’ gal.”
For, Jones, though, the character offered her a chance to play with some mystery as to whether or not the audience should trust her. Admitting that’s no fun if she’s always playing a good guy, Jones immediately has he audience questioning her loyalty when she refuses to identify Neeson’s character after his accident.
“What I like about this role is that it’s something that I haven’t done before,” says Jones, “and is sort of interesting and undefinable in who she is. The audience has to kind of decide whether she’s a good guy or a bad guy… [T]here’s a little touch of noir and an homage to the old Hitchcock films.”
Regardless of artistic nods to classic thrillers, though, Unknown aims for a very modern take on the genre, offering up a mystery that audiences will have to experience for themselves when the film hits this Friday, February 18th.