USA, GERMANY 2011 Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra Written by: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell Produced by: Joel Silver, Leonard Goldberg, Andrew Rona Cinematography by: Flavio Labiano Editing by: Timothy Alverson Music by: John Ottman, Alexander Rutt Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella, Bruno Ganz
From the trailer, “Unknown” looked very much like a reprise of Liam Neeson’s last espionage film, “Taken.” The setting, the weather, the color, the fashion…all represented a clear reminder of the fast-paced, Bessonesque hyper-flick. Whereas “Taken” had a very small, personal agenda that took Neeson’s character on a rampage, “Unknown” aimed a bit too high, and left somewhat a dry taste on the palate.
“Unknown” tells a tale of an undercover agent who’s lost his memory in a taxi accident. Upon waking up from his coma, he believes he was his cover, Dr. Martin Harris, who’s in Berlin to join an exclusive event with his wife (obviously also an undercover agent, played blankly to a T by January Jones). En route to finding out his true self, Harris traces back to the immigrant taxi driver named Gina (Diane Kruger), who had left him after the crash. Gina’s involvement to Harris’s recovery was the slack crutch that sloppily carried the story – offering Harris a rundown apartment to crash because he had no credit or ID; a dingy club to hide when they were being chased by hit-men; saved Harris’s life just in time by running down and crushing not only one, but two bad guys, and finally a happy Hollywood ending by walking away hand-in-hand with Harris into their new life.
Hollywood clearly wanted to create a new sub-genre – action movies with aged thespians, and supported by an overwhelmingly talented cast that could have walked through the script in their sleep, or needed a holiday break between serious films and picking up awards.
Of the lineup, Bruno Ganz’s “ex-spy in need of purpose” was oddly introduced to Harris by an awkward nurse that cared for him while he was comatose in the hospital. Why did a nurse even know a spy from the cold-war era was beyond me. And, when Ganz heard the death of the nurse, he just waved it like she had it coming. (Okay, maybe there should have been a background check on that lady. Another movie maybe, moving on.) Ganz produced a fantastic character that smoothly obtained the pieces for Harris. His character had an air of righteousness without the ego, and knew the fine line that crosses through good and evil. Even in the face of an unbeatable nemesis, the director of Harris’s spy shop, he elegantly drops a sachet of cyanide into his tea and collapses into his enemy’s embrace, the ever suave yet Shakespearean Frank Langella. This was a gentle reminisce of the golden era of spy sparring. But we are in the 21st century, and what’s needed was some nonsensical action. Hence, punches, karate chops, and a fast car chase, backwards. Here was the first hint about Harris’s real background – a street car-racer.
The action of the film was too close for comfort, literally. Almost all scenes had the camera up the actors’ noses and armpits, and car wheels’ axles and exhaust pipes. Was it necessary, well, maybe yes, because the film sometimes seemed so low budget (due to a star-studded cast) that no cash was left to shoot full sets or prop the camera properly on anything stationary. And, few attempts at CG effects were richly rewarded to the freshmen computer specialists at the local county technical school.
Finally, after Harris is made aware of his true identity – an international spy set to assassinate a middle-eastern prince and a biologist – he quickly regains his optimism and skills to redeem his wicked self. And, upon the credits’ rollout and the most stunning shot of the whole film – the Berlin train station under a blanket of snow – one quickly settles into the comprehension that Hollywood wishes to remind us, every once in awhile, just how short our memories are for such films: the Bourne trilogy, “Memento,” and especially, “Total Recall.” But, in the age of Youtube and digital downloads, you can assess that “Unknown” would quickly settle onto the shelves of unmemorable.
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