– Summary –
Director : Jaume Collet-Serra
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Stipe Erceg, Clint Dyer.
Approx Running Time : 113 Minutes
Synopsis: After being involved in a car accident in Berlin, Dr Martin Harris wakes up in hospital with partial amnesia. Returning to the hotel he was due to be staying at with his wife, for a conference, he’s surprised to learn that not only does nobody know who he is, and that his wife doesn’t recognize him, but another man has taken his place as Martin Harris. Together with the taxi driver who saved him after his accident, Martin must unravel the clues to who he is, and in doing so, prevent a major political incident.
What we think : Tense, absorbing thriller with Neeson in great gravelly voiced form, is undone by a see-it-coming twist; once that happens, the film is less of a mystery and more just sitting about waiting for Martin to get the job done.
For anybody coming to Unknown thinking it’s a retread of Liam Neeson’s 2008 ripper Taken, think again. Unknown sees Neesons character, American doctor Martin Harris, off balance and unkempt, quite the opposite of the character he portrayed in Taken. This is still a thriller, though, and it is set in a European country (Germany, this time), but this time, he has no fancy-pants martial arts to help him out. There’s a sense of the almost about Unknown, a sort of muddiness to proceedings that run the gamut of genuinely thrilling, to the crowd-pleasingly cliched, to the dour and unnecessary. Several big names pop up here, including Downfall’s Bruno Ganz, as some sort of German former undercover policeman type, and Frank Langella as one of Martin’s oldest friends. This is one of those films that impossible to see coming, but once you’re in, things start to make more and more sense as it goes along, until all the mystery (and part of the suspense) evaporates. This isn’t a fault of the cast, mind you, and nor do I lay the blame for this totally at the feet of Spanish director Collet-Serra; rather, I think the predictable nature of the film is my own fault, coming, in part, from the fact that we’ve all seen plenty of twisty thrillers, and can spot a red herring or a double-cross coming at five hundred yards. Unknown isn’t clever enough with its twists and turns to generate any real air of mystery, and as a result…. well, the film is less than it should have been.
Doctor Martin Harris (Neeson) is traveling to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit. After leaving one of his briefcases at the airport, he races back in a taxi to try and locate it – only for an accident to occur, sending both he and the taxi (and the female driver) into a river. Knocking his head, Martin wakes up in a hospital with partial amnesia – although he’s a little surprised that nobody’s come looking for him. Without any identification, he makes his way back to the hotel (although he’s been absent for four days) to find Liz, only to discover that Liz no longer recognizes him, and a strange man (Aidan Quinn) believes himself to be Dr Martin Harris. To get to the truth, Martin locates the taxi driver who saved him, Gina (Diane Kruger), and she assists him in proving he is who he says he is. Martin visits a former Stasi officer named Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), who also begins to dig into Martin’s identity – neither Martin nor Jurgen can begin to guess the terrible plot unraveling around them, with hired killers chasing Martin through the very streets of Berlin.
I really enjoyed Unknown, although I can see how others may not. It’s not the most accessible film, nor is it the most plausible film, but for some reason, I found myself rocking along with the fast-paced narrative and enjoying every moment. The plotting is diabolically fast, and the pacing never lets up almost from the get-go, with Neeson providing the gravitas and performance to elevate the thin characters and somewhat generic genre plotting beyond their means. Neeson does his confused face well, and sells the idea that he’s a man for whom memory is his biggest hurdle. Co-star Diane Kruger has a nothing role as Neeson’s sidekick, essentially a sounding board for Martin’s mind-farts, with little else to do save run around and look confused too. January Jones and Aidan Quinn do their best to produce performances both mysterious and believable in their respective roles; Jones, as Martin’s wife Liz, is perfunctory, with very few emotional beats to portray, while Quinn, as the alternative Martin Harris, is solid, if bland. Bruno Ganz delivers a noteworthy performance (again) as the potentially-awesome-but-completely-wasted role of former Stasi officer Jürgen – his affectations and characterization is far above that which should be demanded of him for a film like this. If he’d played it straight, he’d have blended in with the rest, so perhaps it’s a good thing he’s such a committed, commendable actor. And Frank Langella shows up in the final reel to, well, spill the beans on the plot, as it were. Langella’s made a habit of doing bit-parts in recent times, what with this and his creepy showing in The Box being forefront in my mind as I write.
The films brisk pace ensures that rational thought and logical character progression are pushed as far to the background as possible. Red herrings and twists in plot are brought forward, almost to the detriment of everything else. Everything plays second-fiddle to the last-gasp story of Harris’s pursuit of his identity, even if the cost is his own life. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, whom we should all blame for giving us Paris Hilton in House Of Wax, as well as 2009’s horror thriller Orphan, does a terrific job of juggling the action in around the streets of Berlin. Having been to Berlin, it doesn’t strike me as the most photogenic city in all Europe, and perhaps it was unwise to shift the narrative from the original novels French setting to the more solid squareness of the rebuilt German capitol. Nevertheless, Berlin in the dead of winter (there’s snow everywhere) isn’t so bad to look at, I guess, and the film’s tone and visual aesthetic is superb considering. Still, Collet-Serra does a terrific job here, even if the script and the overarching plot are, in the broad scheme of things, meaningless to us.
I am finding it horribly hard to really pick this film apart, since I don’t want to spoil it for first-time viewers. Unknown has its fair share of problems, as I mentioned above, but the sheer exuberance of the film, along with the raw, brutal European sense of violence and justice, ensure this is yet another crowd-pleasing turn from the ever reliable Neeson. Even if he’s a shonky Zeus, or the voice of an ethereal Lion somewhere in Narnia, Neeson’s gravitas and gravel-voiced performance ensure that regardless of how early you pick the twist (and I admit, I picked it early, and I’m an imbecile with this kind of film, normally) you’ll still have a great time watching it all unfold. Unknown comes recommended for fans of Neeson, and of the thriller genre.