Director : Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay : Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell (based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Liam Neeson (Dr. Martin Harris), Diane Kruger (Gina), January Jones (Elizabeth Harris), Aidan Quinn (Martin B.), Bruno Ganz (Ernst Jürgen), Frank Langella (Rodney Cole), Sebastian Koch (Professor Bressler), Olivier Schneider (Smith), Stipe Erceg (Jones), Rainer Bock (Herr Strauss), Mido Hamada (Prince Shada), Clint Dyer (Biko), Karl Markovics (Dr. Farge), Eva Löbau (Nurse Gretchen), Helen Wiebensohn (Laurel Bressler), Merle Wiebensohn (Lily Bressler)
As in 2009’s Taken, the mere presence of Liam Neeson elevates Unknown into something more engaging than it might otherwise be. A relatively clever bit of misdirection disguised as a thriller about a man whose life has seemingly been stolen from him by unknown villains, the film is propelled by Neeson’s increasingly intense need not only to know what happened to him, but to recover what has been taken from him. In other words, it is fueled by a sense of righteous vengeance, the kind that is best doled out by six-foot-four-inch Irish actors who carry with them the combined weight of both historical savior figures (Oskar Schindler, Rob Roy, Michael Collins) and mythic titans (Zeus, Gawain, Qui-Gon Jinn).
Unlike Taken, however, Neeson’s character, Dr. Martin Harris, is not a CIA operative hellbent on saving his virginal daughter, but rather an American botanist with no apparent skills or strengths outside of the laboratory. We are introduced to Martin as he and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrive in Berlin, where he will be presenting research at an international biotech conference. When they arrive at the hotel, Martin realizes that he has left his briefcase at the airport, so he hails a cab and tries to go back. He never makes it, instead becoming the victim of an auto accident that sends the cab plunging off a bridge into the icy waters of the river below. He might have died, except that he is saved by the cab’s driver, an illegal Bosnian immigrant named Gina (Diane Kruger, strangely cast given than she is German), who quickly disappears. Four days later, Martin awakes from a coma, and when he returns to the hotel and tracks down Elizabeth, he finds her with another man (Aidan Quinn) who not only claims to be him, but has the documentation to prove it. Without his passport or any other information other than his jumbled memory, Martin is unable to prove who he is. Even an Internet search of the university where he works produces a picture of the other man.
Thus begins Martin’s hunt to reclaim his life, which will take him through all manner of back alleys in Berlin and put him in the crosshairs of a shadowy group that is clearly behind his identity theft and wants to ensure that they finish what the car crash into the river did not. Martin eventually finds an ally in Gina, who is virtually the only person who believes his story, as well as Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of the East German secret police-turned-private investigator. The film never gives us the suggestion that Martin is anyone other than who he says he is; we saw him with Elizabeth arriving in Berlin, thus we can be relatively certain that it is not some fantasy in his mind. Yet, the nature of his identity theft seems all but impossible. How could any group, however technologically sophisticated and well financed, erase all evidence of his identity in a world in which we leave digital traces everywhere we go? This is not to mention the apparent complicity of Elizabeth, who must flatly deny that Martin is her husband. Is she being forced against her will, or is she part of some vast conspiracy? The coolness with which she denies him suggests the latter, although she is given to troubled looks that hint at the former.
The narrative, which has been adapted by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell from a 2003 French novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert, is slick in its own way, taking advantage of our expectations that we will be led down blind alleys and thrown red herrings to confuse the true nature of the game. It is not surprising, then, that the film was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, whose twisty horror thriller Orphan (2009) operated on exactly the same principle, hiding its big twist “Purloined Letter”-style right in front of us by banking on our willingness to buy into the genre clichés. When Unknown reveals its true hand, it comes as a genuine revelation that suddenly makes that which seemed strained or contrived during the previous 90 minutes completely understandable (including a rather ridiculously extended car chase). It is thus an emotionally satisfying, if not particularly meaningful, kind of twist, one that makes us laugh at our own complicity while drawing pleasure from finally being able to put all the pieces together. And, even when the film doesn’t quite work in the small details, we have Neeson as our point of identification, his inherent gravitas giving weight to that which otherwise might be quickly forgettable.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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