Theatrical Review: UNKNOWN
Writers: Oliver Butcher (screenplay), Stephen Cornwell (screenplay), Didier Van Cauwelaert (novel)
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella
Studio: Warner Bros.
An attractive American couple lands in Berlin for a medical conference. He is a distinguished doctor. She looks good in leggings. What could possibly be wrong here? Let’s find out.
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) is in town to attend a bio-tech conference in which he’s a featured speaker (something about botany, chlorophyll borophyll). His lovely wife, Liz, (January Jones) accompanies him. We are to understand the two have never been to Berlin, that the conference is probably the pinnacle of Martin’s career, and that their lives together are normal, if peppered with sweetly romantic moments. This will all come crashing down in minutes, after Martin finds himself in a car accident that leaves him both totally alone and totally out of it.
After four days in a coma, Martin comes to – or at least comes to enough to dimly remember some details of his life, enough to get him out of the hospital and back to the hotel where his (presumably) terrified wife is (presumably) waiting for him. She’s not. Not only does Mrs. Harris not recognize her (presumed) husband, she introduces another Dr. Martin Harris (this one played by Aidan Quinn). Is Neeson’s Martin crazy? Or is there something else at work here? Marooned in Berlin without any way to prove his identity, Martin sets out to uncover the truth of what has happened to him – and why. As these things tend to go, his quest involves a cab driver who looks like a supermodel, a former member of the Stasi, and proof positive that Frank Langella in a hat is the stuff nightmares are made of.
There are a number of details to UNKNOWN that may ring false at first blush – Martin’s fighting skills (Neeson continues his reign as bonafide action star), Liz’s disturbingly and disconcertingly dead eyes (finally, Jones has found a role suited to their use), that Martin seems to only have one friend in the world, a car chase so choreographed that portions of it play out almost exactly like a vehicular pas de deux – that the film does explain and call back to, long after we’ve passed them off as shoddy craftsmanship. In this way, UNKNOWN is strangely brilliant, unexpectedly self-aware, even funny. And, if you’re familiar with director Jaume Collet-Serra’s work, something like UNKNOWN might make a tad bit more sense. After seeing ORPHAN, it seemed fairly obvious that Collet-Serra had boned up on his “kids gone evil” films, allowing ORPHAN to more than bust out of its genre rut, ending up as something that was simultaneously funny and unsettling, too aware of itself to be classified as straight-up exploitation.
Nearly the exact same thing seems to have happened with UNKNOWN. So much of the dialogue in the film sounds as if it was lifted from a film (any film) even remotely in UNKNOWN’s genre wheelhouse. When Martin’s doctor delivers the news of his accident and what he can expect in the way of recovery and after-effects, the scene plays precisely like any other scene in which a head injury was described. It all seems very been-there, done-that, a film that flitters between ideas and concepts and issues, never giving a truly original spin to any of them – or does it?
Things do pick up considerably in this strange brew once Martin entangles himself with Gina (Diane Kruger), the world’s most attractive cab driver, and we’re actually given something (and someone) to truly care about. UNKNOWN starts so suddenly that it’s hard to immediately engage with Martin and his plight (though this stumble in effective timing is, like so many other seeming holes and deficiencies, explained away in the film’s finale), but the introduction of Gina infuses the film with the first thing resembling actual consequences. She’s a real person, and her fear at being trapped in such an outlandish and straight-up scary situation offers the first glimmer of reality in the entire affair.
If UNKNOWN felt even the least bit more cohesive, or somehow tighter, it could easily be called something neat and readymade, something like “a twisty thriller!” or “an edge-of-your-seat action-packed ride!” But it’s none of those things. It’s not violent enough for a shoot-em-up, or dark enough to truly embrace its psychological elements. It’s a weird netherland of action-doped drama, not unknown so much as simply unknowing.