A film review by Craig J. Koban February 24, 2011
2011, PG-13, 113 mins.
2011, PG-13, 113 mins.
Dr. Harris: Liam Neeson / Gina: Diane Kruger / Elizabeth: January
Jones / Martin: Aidan Quinn / Ernst: Bruno Ganz / Rodney: Frank
is a borderline absurd thriller, but it’s also entertainingly and
engagingly absurd. Just
consider its laundry list of elements: it has biotechnologists seedy and
mysterious assassins for hire, ex-Stasi private detectives, Arabian
princes, a smoking hot undocumented Bosnian cab driver, genetically
altered corn that could curtail world hunger, and an overall story of
anxiety-plagued mistaken identity, far reaching political conspiracies, and a proverbial plot twist that will either astonish or annoy you.
The kitchen sink is all that’s missing here.
is essentially a mixing bowl containing the tension plagued who-am-I
Hitchcockian mystery thriller with dashes of the Polanski European-locale
aesthetic and a pinch of the action intrigue of the JASON
BOURNE trilogy. Ostensibly,
it contains a crisis involving a seemingly innocent and ordinary man who
– through a series of wickedly extraordinary events – comes to
question the reality in front of him.
Well, he knows exactly who he is (or…does he?), but after a freak
accident (or…was it a freak accident?) everyone around him seems to have
no idea who he is, some even going as far as to label him as a fraud.
There are many possible explanations: either he is right…or
terribly delusional…or has been brainwashed…or has amnesia and has
mistaken as to who he is…or everyone around him is lying…or he’s dreaming.
Okay, it's not the latter.
central premise of UNKNOWN is endlessly intriguing, which provides for
much its escalating and sustained interest throughout its running time. During the first three-quarters of UNKNOWN I was
transfixed and engaged in the central wrong-man mystery storyline, largely
because of the film’s evocative sense of pacing, style, and mood, but
also because of its performances. And,
yes, when there is an unavoidable explanation to the central dilemma the
main protagonist faces, it becomes deceptively easy to scrutinize the
sheer lunacy of the whole enterprise.
Yet, to methodically pick apart the film’s reveals and plot
twists is kind of redundant, because the more you engage your analytical
mind in dissecting the whole story, the more you take yourself out of it.
The escalating implausibilities of UNKNOWN do, no doubt, become
quite cockamamie, but the
crucial thing to take away from the film is that the cat and mouse journey
the film takes viewers on is diabolically enjoyable.
In the end, the film is so relentlessly paced, respectfully
performed, and well photographed that true sophisticates will come out
admiring it. False
sophisticates, I believe, will lamentably spend all of their foolish time
dissecting its ludicrousness.
film starts on amazingly assured footing:
Liam Neeson – hot off of taking names and kicking all sorts of
white Euro trash slave owner ass in 2009’s trashy, but agreeably
enjoyable TAKEN – returns to the action
arena as Dr. Martin Harris, an American professor that has come to Berlin
with his wife (January Jones, more than looking the part of a Hitchcockian
blonde goddess that may have more up her sleeve than she lets on) to
attend a biotechnology conference. Just
as they reach their hotel Martin realizes that he has left a very
important briefcase back at the airport.
He hops back in a taxi to head back to retrieve it, leaving his
wife back at the hotel. His
situation snowballs really fast when his cab becomes involved in a serious
accident that Martin barely survives from.
is checked into a nearby hospital and he wakes up from a coma after
four days with a foggy recollection of what happened, but he does not
appear to have any serious amnesia symptoms.
Against his doctor’s orders, he checks himself out of the
hospital and heads back to the hotel to meet back up with his wife.
When he arrives there is greeted by a real shock: his wife does not
recognize him and, even worse, there is another man (Aidan Quinn) that
claims that he is the real Martin Harris.
To complicate the situation even more, Martin’s briefcase –
still missing – has his passport, wallet, and all other forms of ID in
discuss what happens next would be a spoiler-plagued diatribe on my part,
so I will to end the plot discussion here.
What I will say is that the director, the Spanish-born American
Jaume Colle-Serra, keeps the whole enterprise buoyantly afloat and keeps
viewers tantalized with guessing as to the particulars of what the hell is
going on with Martin. The
intense paranoia of the story is endlessly captivating: Martin seems to be
positive that he is indeed the real Dr. Martin Harris, despite the fact
that everyone around him seems to believe the exact opposite.
Now, maybe he only thinks that he’s Martin Harris…or maybe he
really is Martin Harris…and so on.
The real pleasure of UNKNOWN is that it keeps your innate
compulsion for getting answers sustained throughout.
Assisting in this is the bravura cinematography of Flavio Labiano,
who stunningly evokes a Berlin of frigidly cold and densely populated
streets and dark and ominous corners, which only heightens the dread and
terror of Martin’s anxiety and uncertainty.
also would not work at all if it were not for the thanklessly stong
performances. Neeson has been
getting considerable press lately for “re-defining” himself as an
action star, but upon further review he is no real stranger to lending his
authoritative physicality to the genre (see DARKMAN, ROB ROY, STAR
WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE, and GANGS
OF NEW YORK). I think
it would be apt to say that Neeson is perhaps redefining the essence of
what renders a contemporary action star: At
58-years-old, he certainly is gruffly ripe and older than the
norm, but that does not neuter his overall efficiency as an action hero of
authentic bravado. What
Neeson brought to TAKEN and now to UNKNOWN is his incomparably
raspy-voiced gravitas that’s underplayed with a stern conviction, but
also a sense of world weary vulnerability that can morph, when you least
expect it, to a lethally empowered physical dynamo.
What makes Neeson so compulsively addictive to watch in films like
this is the manner he grounds characters in such a believable way amidst
plots that definitely make us roll our collective and incredulous eyes.
He single-handedly makes us overlook the ridiculousness of UNKNOWN,
few “action stars” have that power.
other performances are stellar as well. The luscious and sexy Diane Kruger – who plays, among all things, a Bosnian- born taxi driver and part-time waitress that
befriends and assists Martin - has the very difficult task of making her
character feel relatable and believable in her moments with Neeson, and
their paring gives the film an unexpected soulfulness.
And how utterly cool is Bruno Gantz as a devilishly wry ex-Stasi
detective that freelances in Germany that believes in Martin’s story and
decides to help him; his dry, deadpan line delivery and below-the-radar
nearly hijacks the film. Then,
of course, we have a late-emerging cameo from the great Frank Langella,
whose icy tongued and calculatingly creepy intonations immediately elicits
the audience to sit forward, pay attention, and instantly come to realize
that this man is not whom he says he is.
His performance is a major tip-off point in the story, but
Langella’s imposing presence is welcome nonetheless.
is certainly not a perfectly executed suspense thriller: There is a
subplot involving an Arabian Price and, yup, genetically modified corn
that is kind of laughable. Equally
giggle-inducing is one of the oldest clichés of the action movies: a big
digital clock readout on an otherwise hidden bomb (why do hidden bombs
need a visible timer?). The
there's the casting hiccup of January Jones, who is ravishingly gorgeous and
certainly could have fit the physical shoes of any of Hitchcock’s icy
cold and detached golden haired beauties with more than a few
tricks up their sleeve. The
real problem is not that Jones looks perfect for the part, but rather her performance
is so exceptionally bland and charmless that she becomes mere window
dressing instead of an intriguing character.
Yeah, then there is that obligatory plot twist near the final act that, truth be told, is very silly, but it should be noted that we at least not annoyingly spoon fed a lazy resolution, ala it-was-all-just-a-dream. Furthermore, even with the incredulousness of the twist, it’s still a twist that ultimately does not betray what has transpired before it in the story. It most definitely is not absolutely watertight (what mystery thriller is?), but UNKNOWN is so consummately directed and acted that it proves that a film does not have to be watertight in logic for it to be exhilaratingly enjoyable. The inherent daftness of UNKNOWN is elevated by Neeson’s strikingly solemn facade and he more than capably commands our buy-in as a troubled and confused, but fearless and unconquerable everyman looking for answers via any means necessary. The “answers” may be problematic, but the rest of the film based around them is a solidly made popcorn entertainment. To quote the title of a recent Adam Sandler comedy, you need to enter UNKNOWN and just go with it.