Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On DVD: "Unknown"

When the Liam Neeson vehicle Unknown opened last spring, it was pitched (probably wisely) as a kind of de facto sequel to the unexpected 2009 hit Taken, which found the distinguished, fiftysomething thesp playing—with brutal effectiveness—the role of action hero. However, Unknown is quite a different beast, an involving mystery with Hitchcockian overtones that are well-executed enough to render the occasional doses of corn forgivable.

The setting is Berlin—information provided to the audience by co-star January Jones, given the unfortunate duty of walking out of the airport into a blustery snowfall and announcing, “Oof, welcome to Berlin!” So much for exposition. Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife Liz (Jones) are arriving in Germany for a biotech summit, at which Martin is giving a presentation; however, one of their bags doesn’t make it into the cab, and when he tries to return to the airport, his taxi is involved in a freak accident that sends it sailing off of a bridge. Martin is barely saved by cabbie Gina (Diane Kruger); by the time he comes to in the hospital, four days have passed. Worried, he tracks down his wife at their hotel, and is greeted by the last words any husband would care to hear from his wife: “Excuse me, do I know you?”

Not only does his wife not know who he is, but someone else entirely (Aidan Quinn, to be precise) is claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris, and seems to have documentation to prove it. To everyone else, Martin appears to be some crazy dude who’s harassing this poor doctor and his wife. So now our hero is adrift in a foreign city, with bad guys trying to kill him, as he attempts to prove who he is and figure out why he can’t remember exactly what happened. “Memories get lost or fractured,” his doctor tells him. “Most of them return.” Boy do they.

The narrative proceeds in most of the expected ways; he finds a sympathetic person of some power (Bruno Ganz as a former Stasi agent) to make inquiries, and tracks down Gina, who helps him connect the dots. There is a fight scene of rough-and-tumble intensity, followed by a car chase that is well-made, if somewhat peripheral (the film’s strength is in its mystery, not its generic action). There is a scene in a seedy nightclub, because one cannot do a film in Germany without a scene in a seedy nightclub. And there is a third-act appearance by Frank Langella, which pretty much any film would benefit from (there’s something just perfect about the icy way that he says, “I’m really… really sorry”).

In the midst of all the crashing cars and ticking bombs, perhaps the film’s tensest beat finds Langella and Ganz together in a room, speaking quietly. That’s a great scene, even if director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) gives away too much with all of those close-ups of the stirring tea. For the most part, however, his direction is slick and efficient, as is Oliver Butcher and Stephen Conwell’s screenplay (from Didier van Cauwelaert’s novel Out of My Head), which rises to genuine interest by entertaining, at least in passing, the notion that Martin might just be crazy—or lying.

Neeson does right by his newfound man-of-action persona; it’s a tough yet nuanced turn, nicely complimented by Kruger, who is a likable and scrappy sidekick. Jones’s role isn’t much—and she doesn’t do much with it, saddled as she is with the rather rote action in the climax (I think we can all agree that we’re all pretty tired of filmmakers trying to wring suspense out of file copying). That said, she’s given another piece of business shortly after that which also seems done to death—until the picture throws a smashing curveball.

When the explanation for the film’s events comes, it’s wildly implausible—but we sort of buy it anyway, because it is possible within the realm of reality in which these stories reside, and because Neeson’s solid, grounded performance anchors even the story’s sillier turns. Unknown is not a groundbreaking picture, or even one that will probably stick with me very long. But while it’s on, it’s a diverting, well-made B-movie.

"Unknown" hits DVD and Blu-ray today. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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