A film review by Craig J. Koban February 24, 2011


2011, PG-13, 113 mins.


Dr. Harris: Liam Neeson / Gina: Diane Kruger / Elizabeth: January Jones / Martin: Aidan Quinn / Ernst: Bruno Ganz / Rodney: Frank Langella

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra / Written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell

UNKNOWN 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. 

UNKNOWN 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. 

The 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. 

The 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. 

He 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 it.   


To 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. 

UNKNOWN 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, and few “action stars” have that power. 

The 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 suaveness 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. 

UNKNOWN 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.

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