Movie review by Greg Carlson
Hilariously specific and wildly improbable, “Unknown” stars coasting underachiever Liam Neeson (“Release the Kraken!”) in another of his recent paycheck-generators. Oskar Schindler may be long out of sight, but Neeson’s choices make for a fascinating and motley collection of historical personalities and fictional firebrands. From Michael Collins and Qui-Gon Jinn to Alfred Kinsey and the majestic lion Aslan, Neeson is no stranger to characters with incredible self-confidence or mighty ego – and sometimes both at the same time. “Unknown” provides the appealing performer with another protagonist whose sensitivity and decency collide with the necessity of physical violence.
Neeson – now approaching sixty – plays biotechnology researcher Dr. Martin Harris, an academic visiting Berlin for a major conference. Leaving behind much younger wife Elizabeth (January Jones) to check in to the hotel while he attempts to retrieve a mislaid briefcase from the airport, Harris experiences serious trauma when the taxi in which he is riding plummets into a river. Four days later, the groggy and disoriented victim makes his way back to Elizabeth, who shockingly denies ever having met him. Stranger still, Elizabeth is in the company of another man identified as Martin Harris. Undeterred, Harris aims to uncover the truth, which turns out to be a pretty ripe caper involving a blight-resistant strain of, yes, corn.
Based on a novel by Didier van Cauwelaert titled in English as “Out of My Head,” which alludes to an impishness the film never musters, “Unknown” is the second Dark Castle Entertainment-branded title directed by Jaume Collet-Serra to deal with the concept of double personalities. While it is certainly an improvement over “Orphan,” “Unknown” is instantly recognizable for the movie-world convenience provided by a konk on the noggin. It really doesn’t matter whether Neeson is Harris or not, given the constant presence of danger and peril that rockets the man from one dilemma to the next.
“Unknown” also takes itself more seriously than it should, and its few flashes of humor – most of which belong to the wisecracking Diane Kruger in her role as Gina, the Bosnian cabbie whose fateful fare involves her in farfetched espionage – are drowned out by plot convolutions and action thriller genre requirements. Car chases and assassination attempts alternate with quieter scenes, several of which focus on the tremendous Bruno Ganz as a weary former Stasi agent invigorated by an opportunity to revisit the kind of deception with which he dealt decades ago. Ganz’s single-scene confrontation with Frank Langella is a delightful slice of Black Forest ham.
Welding “The Bourne Identity” to several of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest “wrong man” scenarios, “Unknown” demonstrates for the umpteenth time the tonal challenges that the Master of Suspense made look so effortless. One immediately recognizable problem lies in the romantic inclinations of the “faithful” Harris toward the woman he thinks is his wife, even as the story insists that he and Gina take turns rescuing one another from all manner of serious bodily harm. In his prime, Hitchcock would not have commenced shooting until the sexual gamesmanship was honed to a fine edge of innuendo and double entendre, an element sorely missing from “Unknown.”
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/21/11.