' ' Cinema Romantico: Middling Thriller March: Unknown (2011)

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Middling Thriller March: Unknown (2011)

“Unknown” takes its title from the plight of Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson), in Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotech conference, whose taxi, hightailing back to the airport where he has mislaid a key briefcase, plunges off a bridge and sends him into coma. He wakes up in the hospital after four days but with Liz nowhere in sight. When he tracks her down, she has no idea who he is, considering Dr. Martin Harris, another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn), is already on her arm. Egads! Now an unknown man in Berlin, our Dr. Martin Harris seeks the help of the cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), who saved his life and then split. And while “Unknown” is not an exact replica of Sydney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) nor Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out” (1947), never mind unfair to some extent as comparisons to Jaume Collet-Sera’s film, it is nevertheless useful in examining why so many modern thrillers prove merely middling. Pollack’s thriller utilizes a Man on the Run (Robert Redford) seeking the help of a woman (Faye Dunaway) to ruminate on isolation and loneliness while “Odd Man Out” oozes on-location Belfast atmosphere. “Unknown”, on the other hand, despite being shot in Berlin oozes the drab, nondescript aesthetic of a Netflix film, despite being distributed through Warner Bros., and though fashioned with a set-up for a kind of unconventional identity crisis, has no aim, really, beyond sort of remaking “Taken” without us necessarily realizing it’s sort of remaking “Taken.” 

Neeson is utterly in his element as a man with intense, possibly absurd, conviction. When he points an index finger at Other Dr. Martin Harris and bellows “Arrest this man!”, you simultaneously believe him and believe that everyone around him would be thinking “This guy has lost his marbles.” Neeson, however, does not fare so well opposite either Jones or Kruger. He and Jones have no chemistry, none, zilch, zero. And upon the big reveal (10 year spoiler alert) that her character and Neeson’s are secret assassins in Berlin on a secret mission, Jones’s turn goes from zero to subzero, so weightless in moments of dramatic action that it’s less unintentional parody than akin to an episode of “Guiding Light” speciously trying to transform one of its characters into an international killer, or something. Kruger fares better only in comparison to Jones. Her character might ostensibly feel attraction to Real Dr. Martin Harris but there is no discernible spark between the actors, one more enervating example of modern cinema’s sexlessness, more concerned with mixing and matching names on a poster than ensuring the actors are right for each other.

As for the setting, “Unknown” makes little use of its Berlin locale aside from virtual sightseeing, like having Real Martin and Gina scamper by The Brandenburg Gate. The enigmatic private eye, Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), who aids Real Martin might prove a former Stasi operative and Gina might turn out to be an undocumented Bosnian refugee, suggesting Germany’s past and present, but these are ultimately just incidental details rather than ones delicately woven into the narrative as subtext, no more meaningful than the genetically modified corn MacGuffin bunk yielding the would-be assassination in the first place. As such, any notion of Real Martin himself as kind of immigrant, illegal or otherwise, is lost in translation, evoked in how his presence winds up getting Gina’s immigrant friend killed, middling thriller collateral damage at the hands of a stupid white American tourist.

The best scene in the movie might be the one in which the Other Dr. Martin Harris keeps saying the exact same thing at the exact same time as Real Dr. Martin Harris, briefly painting “Unknown” as a dark tragicomic nightmare, an intriguing vibe eschewed for its thriller air of close calls and car chases.  And though it would seem to make sense that Gina might be at the wheel during the car chase given her cabbie credentials, it is Real Martin instead, which does not turn out to be a stretch but foreshadowing when Real Martin’s deadly past is revealed. The car chase is, eh, I don’t know, fine, and the suspenseful conclusion in which Real Martin saves the day is, sure, okay, whatever. In the end, it’s mostly just funny that a movie titled “Unknown”, that could have turned Liam Neeson into anything, absolutely anything, engineers one more ostensibly action-packed scenario where he saves the day, the big twist turning out to be the most predictable one of all.


Unknown said...

Someone hits their head and loses their identity, you say? Aiden Quinn shows up, you say? Are you sure this movie is not actually a stealth sequel to "Desperately Seeking Susan"?

Nick Prigge said...

If only.