February 18, 2011
Review - " Unknown " - (in theaters) By Roland Hansen
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Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn,
and Frank Langella
What if “Bourne Identity” was blended with “Taken?” That concoction is
“Unknown.” “Taken” was a sleeper hit a couple of years ago and one
of the more memorable movies that year. It also made Liam Neeson a
bonafide action star.
Neeson reprises his role as a one-man force. This time, instead of
crossing continents to find his kidnapped daughter, he’s in search for
the truth to recover his lost identity.
Neeson is Dr. Martin Harris, a university botanist arriving in a snowy
Berlin from the United States with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones),
to attend a summit. The summit is funded by Prince Shada (Mido
Hamada) and features Professor Bressler (Sebastian Koch) as a
keynote speaker. The goal of the summit is to rid the world of hunger
and through research the professor has evidently discovered
genetically modified corn that can grow in any climate.
Upon arrival at the hotel, Martin realizes that he has left his briefcase
at the airport. While his wife is checking in at the lobby, he takes a cab
back to the airport to retrieve it. A car accident sends the cab reeling
into the river. Whilst his life is saved by the courageous driver, ‘Gina’
(Diane Kruger), Martin has no idea that he’s about to embark on the
ride of his life.
Lying at the hospital in a coma for four days without any identification, no one has visited Martin. While it’s a blur of images,
he remembers his name and bits and pieces about his life.
After he’s prematurely discharged from the hospital at his insistence, Martin goes back to the hotel. To his shock, no one
recognizes him, including his wife. Furthermore, someone else has taken his place as “Dr. Harris.” Predictably, Martin is
hauled out by the police. At the station, when the online profile of Dr. Harris comes up, it’s the picture of that other man. When
he asks to contact a colleague and old friend, Rodney Cole (Frank Langella) back in the States, the call is greeted by a
voicemail. Later at the university, Martin is met with Professor Bressler and “Dr. Harris.”
Martin goes on to track the cab driver in hopes that she could help him with any details. An illegal immigrant who initially
refuses to have anything to do with him, Gina soon sympathizes with him and becomes embroiled in his quest. Compared to
bland Jones, Kruger is not bland and she gets the benefit of speaking in her native German tongue, but I don’t buy her as a
Thinking he’s probably lost his mind, he returns to the hospital for further treatments. He knows something isn’t right but can’t
put his finger on it. His sense of being followed proves to be true when a mysterious man tries to kill him. Although things are
actually better now he’s convinced that he’s not going out of his mind.
At the recommendation of the nurse (Eva Lobau) who cares for him at the hospital, he talks to Ernst Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), a
former Stasi officer who specializes in finding missing identities. Meanwhile, assailants continue to pursue Martin.
Chaos soon follows. Brawls and shootouts. Car chases and crashes. More deaths. When Rodney arrives in Berlin and meets
Martin, all is not well. But finally, revelations…topped with explosions.
It is an interesting sort of nightmare, though almost from the beginning we’re bothered by the nagging sense that the movie
won’t be able to resolve Martin’s problem in a satisfying manner. After all, we watched as the couple landed in Berlin and went
through customs - we already know that Martin isn’t exactly “misremembering” events, and that his wife and her new husband
are lying to him and to the authorities.
It’s hard to overlook the oversized plot holes. In 21st century Berlin, why would Martin not even attempt to log on to his
professional and personal e-mail accounts, and contact anyone else in the States? Why would he not insist the police take
his fingerprints? Because then there wouldn’t be a story. Lastly, it’s not easy to surpass suspension of disbelief concerning
our protagonist and his actions in the end.
If you’re the sort of moviegoer who takes an analytical approach to thrillers of this sort, a lot of what happens in Unknown will
bug you. (It seems to me that all this running around trying to kill Martin could have been avoided if someone had simply
taken him aside and explained the situation to him. And I’ve got all sorts of questions, though to raise them here would
effectively spoil some major plot points. It’s only a movie after all - and not really a very smart one.)
Even if you’re the type who’s able to accept these sort of shaggy dog stories as aspirational lifestyle entertainments, you’re
likely to be underwhelmed by the way the conundrum is resolved. We’re basically left with a underpowered spy-versus-spy
movie, enlivened here and there by decent action sequences - an underwater rescue and a better-than-average car chase -
and the unabashedly animated Bruno Ganz as a former Stasi agent who knows too much.
And fans of Action Liam, the avenger of Taken, will probably like the slamming fight scenes and the designated catchphrase
payoff quip, as forced as it is. (At the film’s press conference, Neeson seemed embarrassed to have uttered it.) But Unknown
is nothing special. It’s endurable because there are pretty people to look at - Neeson, Jones and Diane Kruger as a Bosnian
refugee illegally in Berlin - and sights to see. It’s nice to see good gray Berlin in a movie - the Siegessaule, the Brandenburg
Gate, the Ku’damm and the rest. At least Unknown has a modicum of atmosphere; it’s not Wings of Desire but at least we
don't get Toronto doubling for New York or Shreveport for Seattle.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra takes a workmanlike approach to the material, and about the best that can be said for him is that
he doesn’t unnecessarily confuse us. While nothing about Unknown is exceptional, most of it isn't bad. Though it’s not for
everyone, Unknown does show that Neeson still has box office charisma and star power. The film does tend to take us out of
the realm of reality every once in a while. Somehow things do sort themselves out by the time the credits roll. Neeson and
Kruger do have good chemistry on screen. The only thing I was hoping for was a better script. Unknown is a pretty decent
thriller but it could have been a great one with some script revisions. I give ‘Unknown’ 3 out of five. I would recommend this
movie for a little escapism from the world, but the plot does border on ridiculous as the movie rolls along.