Reviews

'Unknown' Will Probably Remain That Way

Missed opportunities lurk around every corner of this messy production.


Unknown

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella
Length: 113 minutes
Studio: Dark Castle Entertainment, Panda Productions Inc., Studio Babelsberg, Studio Canal
Year: 2011
Distributor: Warner
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content
Release date: 2011-06-21

Ever since Alfred Hitchcock rose to prominence in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, other filmmakers have tried to match his style. These attempts have become even more common since his last film, Family Plot, appeared in 1976. Talented filmmakers like Brian De Palma have made a career of trying to become the “next Hitchcock” and create masterful suspense film. The results have been very mixed, and few movies come even close to matching the excitement of Rear Window, Notorious, North by Northwest, and others.

That doesn’t mean young directors haven’t kept trying, though. The latest example is Jaume Collet-Serra, a Spanish filmmaker known mostly for the horror film Orphan. In Unknown, he tries to deliver a Hitchcock-style thriller, but let’s just say it doesn’t work out so well.

Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist who arrives in Berlin to speak at a major biotechnology conference. Accidentally leaving his bag at the airport, he hops into a cab to retrieve it. Unfortunately, his timing is awful, and a freak accident sends the taxi crashing into a river. Waking up in the hospital, Harris is dazed and confused but ready to rejoin the conference. This is not a good idea. He arrives at the hotel and is shocked to discover that another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) has taken his place. Also, his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) doesn’t remember him, which leaves the stunned original Harris scrambling to uncover the truth about this conspiracy. The situation may not be as simple as it seems, however.

Before I continue, it’s time to make one thing clear. Unknown is a really stupid movie. The acting is fine (except for a wooden January Jones) and the production values are solid, but the story just falls flat. It’s actually a fairly good premise with an innocent man struggling to prove his identity. I can’t believe they messed it up this badly. Adapting Didier Van Cauwelaert’s novel Out of My Head, Writers Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell craft a mystery that keeps us engaged for a little while but has way too many silly moments to succeed. I will say that it offers helpful hints for living out my daily life. Here are five important tips that I learned from watching this sloppy movie:

1. Before hopping in any ol' car for a car chase, know your vehicle.

While speeding through the streets of Berlin with the cab driver Gina (Diane Kruger), Neeson lets out the guttural “Where are the windshield wipers?” grunt after beer kegs splatter over the windshield. It’s supposed to be an intense moment, but Neeson’s delivery and the hokey feeling of the entire sequence makes the chase fall flat. Pursued by unknown killers, Harris and Gina are forced to drive backwards, slam through traffic, and make other daring moves to survive. Yet somehow the wipers question remains the most memorable part of this action scene.

2. If you know a bomb’s about to go off, don’t try to disarm it just to save your cover.

First of all, we’re subjected once again to a bomb’s digital readout of five minutes that seems unnecessary while it’s hidden inside a wall. But that’s nothing compared to a villain trying to disarm the bomb when that person’s well aware that it’s about to go off. The target’s been tipped off and has fled, so the reason to stop the bomb doesn’t make much sense, especially given the grave final result.

3. When you realize your case is still at the airport, tell your wife that you’re going to hop in a cab before leaving.

Given the plot developments that I won’t reveal, it probably didn’t matter, but it’s still a wise move. Harris is so focused on that briefcase that he doesn’t bother to tell his wife before he leaves? Who is this guy? I know January Jones makes Elizabeth seem pretty dim, but this is still an odd choice for any thinking person.

4. If you really want to kill someone, it’s best to just shoot them right away.

After so many years of watching the “talking killer syndrome” play out on screen, you think bad guys would know that explaining your plans just gives the victim time to find a way out. Sedatives don’t work very well, as a hero with true convictions will always fight his way through the drug-induced haze The worst is watching an older killer who seems like a professional take a break to explain the entire plot so Gina can find time to catch up and save the day.

5. If you know a killer’s about to arrive at your apartment, it helps to choose a back-up plan.

One of the most intriguing characters is Ernst Jürgen (Downfall’s Bruno Ganz), a former Stasi officer who helps Harris find his identity. Strangely, he knows that a veteran killer’s about to arrive at his apartment, and all he plans is a simple poison trick. The scene is one of the film’s best due to the acting, but it doesn’t really make sense when you stop to think about it.

This story is mildly engaging while the mystery remains unknown, and once we learn the truth, it makes sense to a point. The villains’ sinister plans are overly complicated and easily foiled, but that fits with the deceptively simple nature of the plot. It feels more complex than it actually is, and even Neeson’s passionate attempts to make it convincing aren’t enough to overcome sloppy storytelling.

This Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack includes two mere featurettes that last a total of nine minutes. In fact, the DVD copy only offers one of the two extras. Considering the fairly high list price, a commentary or at least some deleted scenes would have been worthwhile. Instead, we receive promotional features that were likely created along with the theatrical release. “Liam Neeson: Known Action Hero” provides very complimentary interviews about working with the actor from the director, producer, and the cast.

Equally mundane is “Unknown: What is Known?” and its basic look at the plot and stars. The best moment is a silly quote from Neeson comparing his character’s plight to becoming a “baby again”. The rest is exactly what you’d expect from a bland four-minute promo reel.

Unknown brings together a talented cast in an attractive Berlin setting, which makes the resulting pedestrian genre exercise even more frustrating. Collet-Sera uses stylish techniques to show Harris’ growing paranoia and confusion. Somewhere in the middle of his search, it just grows tedious. Even the big car chase and some close calls with nameless killers aren’t enough to keep us engaged.

There’s a great sequence with Ganz and Langella that’s actually too short, and it makes me wonder if a better movie existed somewhere on the cutting room floor. Ganz in particular steals each scene from Neeson, which is no small feat. It’s a perfect example of the missed opportunities lurking around every corner of this messy production.

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