Unknown (2011)

Wait… who’s the trained assassin?

The only thing more popular than a thriller these days is a thriller in which the audience is not required to figure out much of anything.  If you’ve seen the trailers for Unknown, Jaume Collet-Serra’s new flick, you have to ask yourself: “Did they really want me to go see this movie?”  So much is given away in present-day film trailers that I’m not entirely convinced films themselves won’t soon be thirty seconds long and inserted into ESPN News’ commercial breaks.

Unknown is a film in which questions beget questions, and you have to forget half of them in order to accept what’s next.  It begins on a quiet note, with scientist Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife, Liz (January Jones) visiting Berlin for an important botany summit (it’s a thriller, I swear).  Somewhere in all the hassles of settling into the hotel, Harris leaves his briefcase behind.  He goes back to retrieve it, and the cab in which he’s riding takes a not-so-refreshing dip in the river.  His life is saved by the cab driver, Gina (the amazing Diane Kruger).  After emerging from a four-day coma, Harris returns to his wife to discover that not only has she forgotten him, but he has been replaced with another man (Aidan Quinn) going by the name Martin Harris.  Through one thing and another, Harris must seek out Gina’s assistance in figuring the whole thing out.

At first, there seems to be a traceable breadcrumb trail – Harris’ notebook with little codes in it, constant (and almost random) flashbacks to tender moments between Harris and his wife, and so on – just little bits and pieces to sink our sleuthing teeth into.  But the eventual revelation of what’s really going on is nothing you could have figured out from the clues, most (if not all) of which turn out to be the reddest of herrings.

Not giving the audience the ability to solve the puzzle doesn’t make a poor thriller.  What makes a poor thriller  is overkill, or in this case, overthrill.  When David Copperfield made a fighter jet disappear, he made a fighter jet disappear.  He didn’t start with a rabbit, then a limousine, then an elephant.  If he had, you’d have been exhausted and unimpressed by the time the curtain had even closed on the plane.  Unknown earns its title.  A lot of why? is thrown at us, not least of which is Why does this film have two and a half climaxes?

The film shines when it comes to the performances.  Liam Neeson does the same thing he did in Taken, and he does it well, even if it is just running around, looking bewildered and beating the shit out of non-American people.  Bruno Ganz appears as yet another former German military man, but doesn’t seem the least bit convinced that he should stop.  Frank Langella even shows up in the film’s third act as an important character, but the brevity of this appearance leads me to wonder whether Langella is only allowed to appear in each of his movies for under ten minutes.  Is it in his contract?  Diane Kruger, however, steals this movie, and not just in performance: I’d argue that Gina is the real hero of the story.  She saves Harris from certain doom on three separate occasions, and disposes of the film’s villains herself.  She doesn’t need to.  She has no investment in this Harris guy, who may very well be insane, but she does it anyway.  Why?  She’s a person who helps.  It’s in her blood.

(Spoilers ahead, because you’d feel betrayed if I didn’t warn you)

To round out this piece, I need to reveal the big secret: Harris is a trained assassin, and his “wife” is actually just his professional partner.  The Martin Harris story was just a cover for the duo to kill a famous botanist (Sebastian Koch), and when Harris slammed his head into the cab window, he didn’t forget who his wife was, nor did he create a whole scenario around a woman he’d never met – he just forgot he’d made it up himself.  The problem here is an old fashioned case of irresponsible writing.  This plot twist causes the film to change from drama/thriller to thriller/action movie.  Gina saves Harris a final time after Langella clumsily spells out all the answers, as diabolical villains often do just before failing to kill the hero, and this should be the end.  But no, there’s another climax: now the super duo need to infiltrate the botany summit, disarm a bomb, save everyone, and kill the two uninteresting characters (Liz and the fake Martin, who was actually just a replacement for Harris himself after the car crash), neither of which have anything to do with the story at this point.  Even the dialogue changes to action-movie dialogue.  “I didn’t forget everything!  I remember how to kill you, asshole!”  This choice leaves us with no chance for a satisfying ending.

Was the car crash set up?  If so, how did they know Harris would forget his briefcase, which just happened to have the Collected MacGuffins inside?  By the same token, why would a longtime master assassin leave his mission’s most important tool on a hotel trolley?  Why wouldn’t the other assassins (four are shown in the film) go collect the briefcase?  Why would it be necessary to execute Harris after he woke up?  Couldn’t they just explain to him what happened if he had truly forgotten, and welcome him back to the “family,” as it were?  How would Harris regain his “assassin” bull-shitsu in a single instant, but not regain his desire to be an assassin?  Why don’t we see Harris confront Liz after trying to get to her throughout the entire film?  Why does Langella’s evil character mention his grandchildren so much?  Are we supposed to feel bad?  The laundry list of questions goes ever on, but if you can take the film’s twists with a fistful of salt, it’s an enjoyable and well-made thriller (note the differences between well-made and well-written).

Unknown is Collet-Serra’s best film, and it comes very, very close to being excellent.  We just needed one more rabbit pulled out of the hat (perhaps that the story of him being an assassin was, in fact, just another lie to throw him off course).  Instead, the filmmakers just tore the rabbit’s ears off.

Unknown (2011); written by Oliver Butcher; directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, and January Jones.

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