Mark Reviews Movies

UNKNOWN (2011)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 2/18/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 17, 2011

Unknown starts with a familiar conceit: An ordinary man loses his memory after an accident and tries to rediscover his identity in Berlin, a city where he's never been. The only problem is that his memory isn't all that shaky to begin with after a knock on the head during a car accident puts him in a coma. He remembers his name, his wife, his job, his honeymoon, and that one time in the shower with his wife. A doctor—that always reliable ancillary character to lend an air of credence to whatever contrivances a screenwriter needs to implement to make the premise work—says that's to be expected; after all, traumatic brain injuries aren't neurology or anything.

We can live with such transparent ploys as the one here that Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) will remember almost everything in his life except for the events that would solve all his problems. His problem here being that he believes he's Dr. Martin Harris, happily married to his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) and in Berlin as a speaker at a biotechnology summit. After his a four-day coma, he discovers that his wife is indeed happily married to a Dr. Martin Harris who isn't him (Aidan Quinn).

Martin (the Neeson one) is as convinced of his own identity as everyone else believes he is simply displaying the mysterious effects of his injury, his brain creating some sort of alternate life to compensate for the loss of the memory of his real one or something like that. After all, why doesn't the woman he believes to be his wife recognize him? Where is his identification? If he has created everything, though, how does he know so much about Dr. Martin's (the Quinn one)?

The third question, we suppose, is that he actually is Martin Harris. We know the answer to the second question. Like all mysteries, choosing one right question to ask can be just as important as three helpful answers.

So Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell (working from Didier Van Cauwelaert's novel) misdirect our attention toward questioning the details we and Martin already know to keep us from focusing on the points that really matter. They don't need to do it, but it certainly aids the narrative from moving too far too quickly toward its resolution. That's a part of the movie that's a bit harder to accept.

It starts down one road: Is Martin really who he thinks he is or isn't he? It leads to a few gags surrounding his paranoia. Down in the subway, after being rejected by his former wife, the fancy hotel at which he thought he was staying, and another more rundown one that demands identification he doesn't have, Martin hears footfalls. He turns, sees nothing, and does a double take as a man begins walking toward him—or maybe he just happens to be walking in the same direction as Martin. The train is approaching, so Martin runs to evade the man. The man tries to keep up—or maybe just catch the train.

There are promising pieces to the mystery. That scene establishes the possibility that Martin could be causing more distress among those who cross his path, like the cab driver Gina (Diane Kruger) who saved his life and tags along, than good for himself. Another scene pits the two Martins against each other as they try to convince a fellow scientist (Sebastian Koch) that he is the genuine Martin, stating in chorus details from a phone call they both apparently had. Then there's Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), who was a member of the Stasi when the Wall divided Berlin. He takes on investigating Martin's problem for some pocket cash, mainly because he misses the work. Jürgen is the sort of character, especially as played by Ganz with a twinkle that hints at something at once sincere and sinister, that elevates material.

Taking it down multiple notches are the fights—of the gun and fist variety—and a car chase in which Martin displays a proficiency that belies his status as a regular guy. Expertly careening through the streets of a city where he's never set foot while outrunning and outmaneuvering professional goons cuts the tension dramatically and makes little sense.

Until the explanation, that is. Unknown really fumbles as its vast political conspiracy of a shadowy group unfolds. As always, the riddle is far more intriguing than the answer, and the continual red herrings become an overwhelming burden.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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