Unknown (U.K./Germany/France/Canada/Japan/U.S., 2011)February 17, 2011
Yes, Unknown is preposterous. That in and of itself is not a reason to avoid the movie. The problems lie in the way the absurdity is presented and the manner in which the screenplay resolves once the "truth" is revealed. Alfred Hitchcock rarely met an outrageous plot twist he didn't adore, yet he was so apt at filming serpentine thrillers that we rarely recognized we were being bamboozled until long after the end credits had rolled and the house lights had come up. Many of Hitchcock's best films, if handled by a lesser talent, might have looked something like Unknown. The material keeps our attention but, as we get closer to the inevitable point at which the curtain is pulled back, the movie starts to feel more like a parody than a serious endeavor.
Liam Neeson, emboldened by his success a few years ago in Taken, has returned to the action/thriller genre in another international collaboration. He is Dr. Martin Harris, an American university professor in Berlin for a biotechnology conference. His young wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), has accompanied him on the trip. When a baggage mix-up necessitates a quick return to the airport, Martin departs without a word to his wife while she is checking into the hotel. His cab is involved in a serious accident. Martin is knocked unconscious by a blow to the head but the driver, an illegal Bosnian immigrant named Gina (Diane Kruger), saves his life then vanishes. Martin is in a coma for four days and, when he awakens, his memory is foggy. He leaves the hospital against his doctor's orders and goes to the hotel, where two unpleasant realities greet him: his wife does not appear to recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) claims to be the "real" Martin Harris. Martin is beginning to accept that he may be insane when a hit man tries to take him out.
With the exception of a couple of pedestrian car chases (just because a car chase happens in Berlin does not automatically make it more exciting than one in Los Angeles), the story for Unknown moves along at a nice clip for about the first 3/4 of the running time. It keeps the viewer guessing and, although the solution to the mystery is fairly silly, at least the filmmakers do not resort to a near-death experience or a dream to resolve things. They "play fair," for lack of a better term. Unfortunately, once the truth is known, not a lot of what happens afterward makes much sense. In addition to being poorly motivated, it's hackneyed and clichéd. One character is dispatched in a ridiculous manner. There's a digital readout on a bomb. An intriguing side-plot is short-changed. And an individual's change-of-heart has no reason beyond sloppy plotting. Unknown is one of those all-too-familiar films where a terrible ending ruins any fun to precede it. If there's one thing to be said in Unknown's favor, it pertains to the look of the production. The cinematography is icy and crisp, evoking a Cold War Berlin and all the spy stories that died with its end.
It's also curious to note how many ideas ended up being swept under the rug because they were too complex for the intended worldwide audience. At the center of one of these is the character of Ernst Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), an ex-Stasi officer who is doing freelance work in the new Germany. Unknown wants to say something about how Germany has changed since the fall of the Wall and how Germans have a capacity to forget their past and re-invent themselves. There's also something about an anti-immigrant sentiment. However, these points, as presented in the screenplay, are muddled and left half-baked. In fact, Jurgen is a more interesting character than Martin, but this is not his story.
Neeson, who can be a titanic presence when called upon, is in "Taken mode" for this outing, which is to say he has settled into the role of a traditional action hero. It worked with Taken, but it's not his forte. Diane Kruger is underused (at least during the first half); she hasn't been this been this badly misused since playing Helen of Troy in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, and there she had a nice nude scene to obfuscate the lack of character definition. Quentin Tarantino did her much better justice in Inglourious Basterds, even though it was technically a smaller part. Frank Langella, who has done some spectacular work lately, is laughably bad here; not since the Lolita remake has he been this awful. Bruno Ganz brings some dignity to the project, although there are times when one is reminded of his interpretation of Hitler in Downfall.
Films like Unknown fill a niche - lowbrow thrillers that give the appearance of being "smart" to an audience that isn't doing much in the way of thinking. It doesn't matter that the resolution to the mystery contorts logic into a pretzel - we're in it for the playing of the game. If Unknown didn't fall apart so completely during its final 20 minutes, it might not have disappointed. As it is, however, the film has to be taken in its totality, and this one will look a lot better to someone who vacates the auditorium early than to someone who stays to the bitter end.
Unknown (U.K./Germany/France/Canada/Japan/U.S., 2011)
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch
Screenplay: Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell, based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert
Cinematography: Flavio Labiano
Music: John Ottman, Alexander Rudd
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers