It’s tempting, sometimes, to dismiss a movie based purely on how derivative we perceive it to be rather than judging it on its own merit -- especially when the films that influenced it share a certain amount of critical or popular acclaim. A pulpy amalgamation of everything from vintage Hitchcock to The Bourne Identity, Unknown certainly isn’t the most...read more
It’s tempting, sometimes, to dismiss a movie based purely on how derivative we perceive it to be rather than judging it on its own merit -- especially when the films that influenced it share a certain amount of critical or popular acclaim. A pulpy amalgamation of everything from vintage Hitchcock to The Bourne Identity, Unknown certainly isn’t the most original thriller ever to grace the silver screen, though tight scripting, solid action, and well-executed twists make it a perfectly fitting follow-up to Liam Neeson’s surprise 2008 hit Taken, and a fast-paced mystery that’s sure to please all but the most jaded and cynical of moviegoers.
Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) has just arrived in Berlin to deliver an important presentation when he realizes that his briefcase has gone missing, and leaves his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), at their hotel to try and retrieve it. During his cab ride back to the airport, however, a serious car accident lands Dr. Harris in the hospital, where he lies in a coma for four days. Upon awakening, Dr. Harris is horrified to discover that every relic of his identity has been completely erased. His shock is soon compounded when, upon seeking out his wife at a lavish party, another man appears by her side claiming to be the real Dr. Martin Harris, and requests that hotel security protect them from the unstable “impostor.” Facing total denial from everyone he turns to, Dr. Harris gets a tip from a sympathetic nurse to seek out the assistance of Ernst Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), the former head of the German Secret Police, who implores him to track down Gina (Diane Kruger), the illegal immigrant taxi driver who narrowly saved his life, and may hold the answers to all of his questions. Now, the closer Dr. Harris gets to solving the mystery, the greater the danger becomes until the astonishing truth is revealed, plunging him into a desperate race against time.
Say what you will about the originality of the story, but Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s screenplay does a commendable job of paring down Didier Van Cauwelaert’s original novel (Out of My Head) into a lean, efficient mystery that succeeds in drawing us into the story even before the opening credits have finished. However, the effectiveness of their screenplay doesn’t merely rest in their ability to present a scenario that first appears impossible, then peel away the layers of deceit so that everything starts to make sense at just the right stride, but also in their ability to embrace the absurdity of the situation and draw some intriguing parallels between Dr. Harris, trapped in a foreign country with no sense of identity or self, and his reluctant ally Gina, whose illegal status makes her something of a stranger in a strange land as well. While that particular story element never takes precedence over the action, it does bond the protagonists in a way that makes us want to root for them, while simultaneously raising the stakes for both as tensions swell to a crescendo. Meanwhile, director Jaume Collet-Serra works well with cinematographer (and occasional Alex de la Iglesia collaborator) Flavio Labiano to give Unknown a seductively glossy sheen and keep the action scenes coherent without feeling restrained; the fights are fast and brutal, the chase scenes animated and exhilarating, and the suspense scenes handled with careful attention to pacing to achieve maximum impact courtesy of editor Timothy Alverson.
In front of the camera, Neeson continues his winning streak as one of his generation’s most magnetic action stars, Kruger does a commendable job of balancing quiet pride with growing desperation (even if her Bosnian accent isn’t exactly airtight), and Ganz instills the film with levity and gravity as a bored sleuth with not only a remarkable talent for sniffing out the truth, but also a unique perspective on German history. And while moviegoers with an equally solid grasp of cinema history may find themselves getting too caught up in pointing out the derivatives of the screenplay to give Unknown a fair shake, those willing to go with the flow and lose themselves in the action will be treated to a satisfying subversion of Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run motif.
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