Intriguing Unknown an Exhilarating Failure
Based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert, Orphan and House of Wax director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Unknown comes frustratingly close to being a good, maybe even a great, mistaken identity mystery-thriller. Combining elements of Frantic, The Bourne Identity, Taken and the television show “24,” the movie aspires to be a “Twilight Zone” level brain twister but instead ends up being nothing more than a moderately disappointing missed opportunity. While elements of this one are downright awesome, the final product is sadly forgettable, and for all its strengths it’s doubtful this is one I’ll be talking about one way or the other come the end of the year.
Liam Neeson (left) in Unknown © Warner Bros.
Things start out promisingly enough. After being gone for four days thanks to a mysterious car accident that had left him in a come, Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) returns to his Berlin hotel to discover his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) claims no knowledge of him and that another man (Aidan Quinn) has claimed his life for his own. His sanity riding the razor’s edge, he seeks out the illegal immigrant cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), who saved his life in hopes she can shed some light on the situation. They even manage to engage the services of former East German operative Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), the old man believing Marin’s story deciding to help him because doing so would relieve some of his lonely boredom.
Neeson could do this sort of thing in his sleep, and even though he’s basically channeling Harrison Ford’s Frantic performance he does it masterfully. His first meeting with Elizabeth and his doppelganger post his accident is a humongous treat, as is his next scene with the hotel’s security staff trying to prove he is who he says he is, beginning to question his own sanity with every word. He makes Martin’s initial descent into madness and his subsequent rise out of it believable, mining a multitude of conflicting and converging emotions in a way that kept me happily unbalanced.
The thing is, very quickly it becomes clear that Martin isn’t going mad, that there is a massive conspiracy intent on erasing him from existence and planting someone else inside his old life, and the reasons for it happening aren’t especially surprising. For that matter, they’re also not altogether interesting, and by the time our mentally befuddled hero starts showing off driving skill that would make James Bond blush it becomes clear that the man’s secrets aren’t near as interesting as they potentially could have been.
At the same time, there are pieces of this that are beyond sensational, not the least of which is Ganz’s ex-Stazi agent researching Martin’s story. In many ways, this is the first award-worthy performance of 2011. The delight he has playing the role, the knowing way he manages to play with all his character’s intriguing nuances, all of it adds together to become something extraordinary. Ganz shares a late scene with the almost equally as wonderful Frank Langella and the two old pros have a field day, their joint appearance elevating things to a deliciously awesome level that made me want to rise from my seat and applaud.
Additionally, just from a purely technical standpoint this is the best film Collet-Serra has assembled yet. It is magnificently photographed by Flavio Labiano (Timecrimes) and assuredly edited by Tim Alverson (Shutter), while John Ottman (Superman Returns) and Alexander Rudd’s elegant score is a refined and magnetic addition highlighting the onscreen action beautifully. Unlike his previous efforts, Collet-Serra paces the film with a rhythmic intensity that builds as it goes along, and while everything ultimately does collapse under the weight of the story’s inherent pompous silliness getting to that point is hardly a chore.
I should point out that Jones is terrible, and for those that dislike her on “Mad Men” (of which group I am not a part of) they’ll find more fodder for their feast with her disaffected and emotionless work here. Also, Quinn is positively wasted, as are The Lives of Others standout Sebastian Koch and fellow German acting heavyweights Karl Markovics (The Counterfeiters) and Rainer Bock (The White Ribbon). While Neeson does have that one knockout scene with Ganz, other then that he’s mostly going through the motions picking up a paycheck, his appearance a relatively brief one that’s over almost before you know it.
But the big problem is the story itself. Maybe this worked better in Van Cauwelaert’s novel, but as a feature film what takes place is both too convoluted and too obvious for its own good. I had the ultimate twist pegged a few scenes before Ganz’s character did, so when the ultimate revelations are announced I can’t say they did all that much for me. Oliver Butcher (Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde) and Stephen Cornwell’s (Killing Streets) script telegraphs its twists and its turns far too clearly, and while there is a somewhat pleasing surprise involving an explosion there’s not much here to talk about.
Unknown does have plenty going for it. Neeson is his usually solid self, while Kruger is just fine as the woman he drags along for the ride. Ganz is positively sensational, while the film itself looks and sounds terrific first scene to last. But the story is a drag, and by the time it was over I was decidedly under whelmed by all that had taken place. Collet-Serra has made an interesting and at times exhilarating failure, nothing more, and I’m not sure finding out is worthy of the ticket price required to gain that knowledge.
Film Rating: êê (out of 4)