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At The Picture Show
February 2011

Lose yourself

Old premise yields underwhelming results in 'Unknown'

Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay: Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, based on the novel Out of My Head, by Didier Van Cauwelaert
Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella and Sebastian Koch
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 53 minutes
Opened February 21, 2011
(out of four)

We get this movie every year. Someone wakes up one day and his life is no longer his own. Someone else is in his place, or none of his acquaintances recognize him, or everything he once knew has somehow disappeared. It's an old hook.

So right off the bat with Unknown, we know we're wearily getting into all-too-familiar material. We already have three or four possible second-act twists in mind. We think back and remember all the other movies we've seen exactly like this one . . . and let's just say that doesn't fill us with optimism.

Then again, one could say the same thing for Jaume Collet-Serra's previous film, last year's Orphan. That one was the old "evil child" prototype. But despite laughable trailers, it actually wound up being pretty effective (almost despite itself, at times), with Collet-Serra displaying a sneaky-good sense for atmosphere and pitch-black humor.

Unknown is a curious bird because, in retrospect, the twists and revelations we discover actually aren't bad ideas. Pretty good ones, in fact - ideas that could hold up to scrutiny if only the film hadn't dealt with the logistics of those revelations so haphazardly. What we're left with is a film that could have been airtight instead riddled with gaping holes.

Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, who - accompanied by his wife, Liz (January Jones) - has just arrived in Berlin for a biotechnology conference. He is set to meet with a Professor Bressler (Sebastian Koch) to discuss one another's work. But just as he arrives at his hotel, Martin realizes he left his briefcase at the airport; he snags a cab to rush back for it, gets in an accident and wakes up from a coma four days later.

Aside from the film's other logical flaws, let me just say this: Given the circumstances we are eventually presented with, there is no chance that Martin would have casually left his briefcase in the hands of anyone else, or simply forgotten to check for it. I'll leave it at that, but the point has to be made.

Anyway: He wakes up, checks himself out of the hospital despite the doctor's suspicions about his state of mind, and rushes to the hotel to try and get in touch with his wife and Dr. Bressler. After all, the conference is about to start, and Martin is one of the key speakers. Only when he arrives, an impostor is in his place - he (Aidan Quinn) insists that he is Dr. Martin Harris. His wife confirms this. Hotel security ushers our Martin out the door.

What I liked about Unknown early on is the sense of humor with which Collet-Serra treats the situation. There is one fantastic sequence when Martin accosts his impostor, who is deep in conversation with Dr. Bressler. Our Martin tries to convince the doctor of his identity, recounting phone conversations the two have had - details of their work and personal lives they've discussed.

A confused Bressler listens intently, only for Impostor Martin to break in and begin doing the same thing. It's a Dueling Martin Harrises routine, and the way the director shoots it - rotating close-ups with Bressler's head going back and forth between the two with increasing confusion - turns it into an exceptionally funny scene. Collet-Serra recognizes the inherent humor of the scenario and milks it for all it's worth.

Which is what makes much of the rest of the film so disheartening in a way. He seems to lose that humorous thread, falling into a rhythm of monotonous set-up punctuated by monotonous action. The action sequences, in particular, seem an unnecessary diversion. It's as if the studio saw the box-office success of Taken and decided that Liam Neeson needed to be an action hero in this movie, too.

But he doesn't need to be. Getting chased around the city by nefarious forces intent on stealing your identity - or finishing the job they started - is inevitable, I suppose. But massive car chases? Shootouts? Roof-hopping? Fisticuffs?


When all is said and done in Unknown, the proceedings don't feel nearly as interesting as they probably should. And the film never really addresses the absurdity of the Diane Kruger character. Kruger plays Gina, the Russian immigrant who was driving Martin's cab when it crashed into the river. Once we find out what's really been going on, the Gina character no longer makes any sense at all - her suspiciousness, what she seems to know or not know, her purpose in the plot. Essentially, the logic of her presence makes sense when we believe one thing is happening, but when we find out something else is happening, suddenly she's an anachronism.

Unknown is not without its pleasures and is not poorly made - it just can't hold up to its own internal logic. Which, ultimately, is exactly what we expected in the first place.

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