The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Unknown was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Sometimes I feel as though we don’t appreciate Liam Neeson enough. Moving easily between leading-man roles and character work, he’s able to chew the scenery when a script calls for it and just as easily dial his performance down to a subtle level approaching minimalism. Ever since his breakthrough turn in Darkman, it seems that every time I look up at the screen, there’s Neeson, doing good work in films that often aren’t worthy of his talents. Such is the case with Unknown, an otherwise soggy conspiracy thriller that Neeson practically horsewhips into watchability.
Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is an American botanist who has traveled to Berlin with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), to attend a biotechnology conference. When he accidentally leaves his briefcase at the airport, he leaves Elizabeth to check into their hotel and jumps into a cab to return to the airport. But before he can get to the airport, a freak accident forces the cab off a bridge and into a river. The driver of the cab, Gina (Diane Kruger), is able to pull him to safety and disappears once paramedics arrive. In a coma for four days, he awakens to be told by the attending doctor (Karl Markovics) that he was found with no identification. When Martin explains his situation, but finds that gaps remain in his story, the doctor drops a heap of explanation on Martin — and the audience — that he may have suffered some memory loss in the accident.
Against the doctor’s wishes, Martin checks out of the hospital and goes to his hotel. There he finds Elizabeth, who claims not to know him. Even worse, another man (Aidan Quinn) claims to be Dr. Martin Harris. A fact he backs up with identification and Elizabeth’s claims. Paranoid and frightened, Martin plunges into the Berlin night, determined to find out what has happened to his life. He tracks down Gina and persuades her to help him. But even he is not sure if he’s insane or if some sinister plot has been engineered to take over his life. If you’ve seen any of the marketing for the film, you already know the answer to that question.
But even if you went into the film without any knowledge of the story, director Jaume Collet-Serra fails to ever make it much of a guessing game. From the moment that Martin meets his “other,” it’s made crystal clear who is the hero and who is the villain. All that remains is the why.
Unfortunately, the why is not very interesting. Yesterday, I wrote a review of I Am Number Four where I talked about derivative mainstream films. While that film reassembled its stolen story bits in an interesting enough manner that I was just able to recommend it, Unknown does nothing new or unusual enough with its bits and pieces of The Bourne Identity, Frantic, and Memento, to completely justify its existence.
What entertainment value is on display comes in the form of impressive work by Neeson, Kruger, and Bruno Ganz as an unrepentant former member of the East German secret police who now works as a detective specializing in missing person’s cases. Neeson and Kruger have the chemistry he lacks with the bland Jones, making a forced romantic subplot work better than it has any business doing. Ganz’s performance is full of humor as the most interesting character in the film. I would have liked to seen an entire movie just about him.
Not surprisingly, Collet-Serra takes pains to force an unnecessarily convoluted car chase into the proceedings at the expense of logic or coherent storytelling. By the time the painfully simple, yet ludicrous, explanations roll around in the third act, it’s obvious that the filmmakers are more interested in cool shots of things exploding than they are with making the protagonist someone to care about or telling a worthwhile story.
Unknown is a mediocre film that manages to stay watchable far longer than it should through some smart casting. Unfortunately, Neeson, Kruger, and Ganz can only do so much before the whole affair is crushed under the weight of the silly plot and plodding direction.
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