Will the real Dr. Martin Harris please stand up? Identity theft kicks it up a notch in Unknown, a not-bad thriller starring Liam Neeson. If that sounds like faint praise, it is, but at least this overgrown “B”-movie tickles the brain just a tad, unlike Neeson’s lunkheaded but blazingly popular Euro-thriller from two years back, Taken.
Neeson plays Harris…or does he? Yes, it’s that sort of movie: in Berlin to speak at a biotechnology summit, the doctor runs an errand away from his wife and takes an unscheduled plunge off an overpass. Awakening from a four-day coma, Harris experiences memory loss and what may or may not be severe cognitive confusion: when he attempts to step back into his responsibilities, he finds his wife Liz (January Jones) with another man (Aidan Quinn), a man who insists that he’s Dr. Martin Harris.
Under no apparent duress, Liz confirms that Martin #2—who produces all the evidence Martin #1 can’t—is the real deal. What’s a concussion victim to do? Apart from questioning his own sanity, Mr. Harris hires ex-Stasi p.i. Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz of Downfall). At Jürgen’s urging, Harris attempts to make contact with the Bosnian illegal-immigrant cab driver (Diane Kruger) behind the wheel during the crash (she may remember something useful), as well as an older colleague (Frank Langella) who Harris believes can confirm his identity.
What makes Unknown compelling—for those who will find it so—is the desperate, soul-shaking situation facing Martin. Unfortunately for the audience, the more help he gets and the more he learns, the less taut the film becomes: at first crisply paced to stay a step ahead of us, the story gradually slackens. Action sequences begin to fill the time until the big reveal: Bourne-lite hand-to-hand combat with goons and a Frankenheimer-esque car chase (with admittedly impressive stunt driving).
Still, in aspiring to match the thrillers of Frankenheimer and Hitchcock (and Polanski’s Hitchcock homage Frantic), Unknown mostly lacks the grindhouse energy fans of Taken might come expecting; they may find the picture a little too tasteful in the hands of director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) and as adapted by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell from Didier Van Cauwelaert’s novel (a.k.a. Out of My Head). On the other hand, a time bomb does show up at one point, so it’s not exactly My Dinner with Andre.
Best of show goes to any scene that puts the canny Ganz front and center: his character is the only one with anything truly interesting to say, as when he identifies willful forgetting (of Nazism and Communism) the German national pastime. The scene putting Ganz tête-à-tête with Langella captures the frisson of two old lions sizing each other up.
When Unknown doles out its answers and pits “good guy” against “bad guy,” you’ll be forgiven for wishing the film were more interested in moral complexity, but even after the guesswork is over, Neeson’s towering intensity holds the picture’s center.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Warner's Blu-ray +DVD + Digital Copy special edition of Unknown may not be so special in the bonuses department, but it does feature a fantastic A/V presentation. The hi-def transfer lovingly recreates the filmmakers' chosen palette and contrast, as well as the minutest of details and textures. Light grain is apparent (as it should be), and black level is rock solid. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix gives the film a full-bodied aural treatment that's likewise true to its source, with impressive low-end punch and thoughtfully rendered separation and distribution of the various elements of the soundscape.
The two paltry bonuses are promo-style featurettes, both with behind-the-scenes glimpses and bland talking-head interview snippets. "Liam Neeson: Known Action Hero" (4:33, HD) includes comments from Liam Neeson, Frank Langella, January Jones, director Jaume Collet-Serra, producer Joel Silver, Diane Kruger, production designer Richard Bridgland, Aidan Quinn, and stunt coordinator Olivier Schneider. "Unknown: What Is Known?" (4:24, HD) features Neeson, Langella, Jones, Collet-Serra, Silver, Kruger, Quinn, and Sebastian Koch.
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