“Unknown” – We Know it All Too Well

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

In action films like Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Unknown,” as with the world in general, lots of innocent people are killed because of a few greedy miscreants. But while in the latter case it’s been the bane of humankind since time immemorial, it’s totally acceptable as an art form. Where else can you experience all manner of wrongs righted in but two hours?

It’s a case of art ameliorating life…the circus the Romans doled out to keep the good citizens from turning into an angry rabble. But while filmed in par-for-the-course mode with nothing to upset its predictability or deter its implicit, revengeful pound of flesh, “Unknown” is the slow boat to China of its film phylum. It’s a bit of an oxymoron.

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While the action scenes alone are cutting edge, lickety-split tornadoes of crashing cars, broken glass and mass mayhem, the suspense aspect of Mr. Collet-Serra’s study in grand theft identity is tediously snail-paced. I’m loath to mention the genre’s paradigm in the same paragraph. Yet useful lessons abound in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man.” (1949).

Of course a great script—in said case Graham Greene’s cynical, world weary look at post WWII Vienna— is always a good idea. However, in its unavailability, a culling of that film’s witty use of dialogue is highly suggested. Although seemingly disparate from the mystery at hand, the character quirks and styles of expression add a smart dimension.

Here, no one says anything we’ll be able to quote whilst trying to appear sophisticated at Prince Charles’s coronation ball. “Stay here, I’ll be right back,” is about as picaresque as it gets. And, adding insult to injury, when we finally find out what’s what, we’re apt to share the letdown Peggy Lee evoked when she plaintively asked, “Is that all there is?”

All the same, while not initially sympathetic with Liam Neeson’s Dr. Martin Harris when it appears that someone is messing with his head, the unnerving nature of the biotechnology expert’s plight can’t help but build to substantial tension. We sure wouldn’t want to be stuck in a foreign city, and told we aren’t who we think we are.

Arriving in Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for a world conference of like scientists, all seems well with the doc until a bungling of his luggage leads to a car accident. And in Moviedom, as you know, that’s always a perfect opportunity for the director to place one in a coma. Presto change-o, emerging from that state you’re just not yourself anymore.

Thus you are nameless. The rub is, whoever you are, there are plenty of villains trying to see to it that you are soon no more. What probably hurts worse, your wife says you’re not the man you once were. Happily, romance springs eternal, even in convoluted, misbegotten potboilers. Arriving to prove they believe you if they like you is Gina.

No stranger to trouble herself, Diane Kruger’s Gina, the cab driver soon inextricably tied to Martin’s deadly dilemma, is in Berlin illegally. “Hmm,” we think. Too bad Martin is married. O.K., so pretty Gina has plenty of bothersome baggage. But, hey, our man’s wife doesn’t even know him. Maybe she’s in on the whole deal. Boy, hope Gina isn’t.

So it’s get your scorecards, get your scorecards, can’t tell the bad guys from the good guys without a scorecard. No Hansel and Gretel crumbs lead the way. The cheating, patchwork screenplay deals from the bottom of the deck. Even if you played it backwards you’d find no logical clues to the puzzle…maybe just something about Paul being dead.

Like hockey players dividing time between frenzied madness on the ice and the quiet of the penalty box, the plot jerks and stalls from total bedlam to drab, often clichéd oases of inaction. A partial exception is the inspired insertion of Bruno Ganz as Ernst Jürgen, the wily old secret police operative emeritus. Too bad his part isn’t written better.

Also half-baked is the potentially intriguing use of Berlin as the background to danger. While most often dark and foreboding, its regrettable history suggested in the sinew and mood of the cinematography, there is no real emotional connection between story and location. Shuffle the entire scenario to Des Moines and it wouldn’t change things a lick.

Still, Liam Neeson is to be exonerated. Despite the general disconnect that threads throughout this mediocrity, the credible angst he exudes paradoxically works as a disservice in that it manages to hold our interest. For alas things can only lead to the makeshift, cop-out ending, leaving us to conclude that “Unknown” is nowhere, man.

“Unknown,’ rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and stars Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger and Bruno Ganz. Running time: 113 minutes


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