So despite my intentions to see this film the week it came out, I only just got round to seeing Unknown, starring that wise old Hoss, Qui-Gon Jinn and Diane Kruger – a German woman who spent years trying to sound American so she’d be taken seriously in Hollywood, and thus struggled to be taken seriously when she applied for the part of a German-based woman. Acting; it’s a funny old game.
Plot (As Spoiler Free as Possible)
Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a biologist who is visiting Berlin with his wife Liz (played by January Jones) to deliver a speech at a biotechnology summit.
As he leaves the airport, he accidentally leaves his briefcase behind on one of the luggage trolleys, so when he gets to the hotel and realises it, he hails a taxi to take him back there.
On the way, the taxi – driven by Kruger’s character Gina – is involved in an accident and ends up in the river. Harris is knocked out and wakes up four days later in a hospital bed, barely able to remember who he is.
Eventually he does and he realises that his wife must be worried sick, so he leaves the hospital to go back to the hotel. But he doesn’t have any ID because that was in the briefcase he left at the airport.
Once he’s at the hotel, he takes a while to convince the hotel staff that he is Dr. Martin Harris and that the way to clear it all up is to take him to his wife. And they do.
His wife apparently doesn’t recognise him, and there’s another man there who says he too is Dr. Martin Harris and unlike Neeson, he has the ID to prove it. More than that, all evidence online to back up who he is (such as his university’s website) has been changed to show the other guy as Martin Harris.
This obviously angers and confuses Neeson who realises that he needs to prove who he is. He tries to get the organiser of the summit – Professor Leo Bressler – to back him up because he’s spoken to him on the phone many times, but the other Martin Harris seems to know everything they spoke about as well.
Harris tries to get his line manager on the phone to back him up but he’s conveniently not around to take the call.
There’s just no way for him to prove who he is (apart from the very very easy way which I will get to shortly).
So Neeson he tracks down Gina taxi driver and also hires a former member of the Stasi (East German Secret Police) to help prove his point.
Oh, and all the while, two men keep trying to kill him.
Plot wise, that’s as far as I can go. Does Harris find out what is going on? Why is his wife pretending not to know him? Who is this other Martin Harris? How did it all happen?
Well, it’s all explained, and in a clever way in my opinion. While I didn’t spend my time frantically coming up with possible solutions before the reveal just so I could say ‘I knew that was going to happen’, like my friend Amit always does, I have to admit that I didn’t see it coming.
What is it? Watch it yourself and see.
Oh, and Frank Langella – who played Skeletor in the live action Masters of the Universe film in the 80s – is in it as one of the bad guys. Nice.
Ok, so what was the very easy way for Neeson to prove who he was? Well put it this way; Neeson may try and say he has an American accent, but he doesn’t. He’s got a strong Irish accent. So when both Martin Harris’s were trying to convince Bressler that they were the one who had spoken to him on the phone, Bressler would surely say “Oh yeah, I spoke to the Irish guy, not the American”.
But of course, that would be too easy.
Unknown is a lot like an Alfred Hitchcock film. Indeed, you could imagine the part of Martin Harris being played by James Stewart or – to a lesser extent – Cary Grant. It’s mistaken identity in reverse. In North by Northwest – my favourite film no-less – Grant is mistaken for the spy known as George Kaplan. He wasn’t Kaplan of course so he spent the film escaping from danger while trying to prove he was plain old Roger Thornhill. In this film, Neeson escapes danger while trying to prove that he is Dr. Martin Harris. It’s an interesting twist on a tried and tested formula.
One big difference between the films of Hitchcock and a film like this is the use of violence. It was rare to see explosions, murder, car chases and fight scenes in those older films, and to be honest I think they were better for it, mainly because when violence was used (such as in the film Torn Curtain) it made more of an impression. The drama was in the suspense.
But I can’t say there was too much suspense in this, and instead the scenes where Harris tried to prove his identity were held together by car chases, home invasions and the like. That’s not necessarily too bad a thing, because it was enjoyable, but when you do sit down and compare it with the likes of North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much it does come up lacking.
But let’s not be too harsh on the film. It was good. No, it won’t go down as a classic, but it did have the stereotypical ‘stellar cast’ and an interesting and unexpected development towards the end. But I can’t say more than that because it would spoil it. If you have seen it, you might agree with me that the conclusion of the film was a little bit troubling from a moral point of view…
As for the stellar cast, Neeson performed his part with aplomb. I found him to be convincing in the role and when he had to use violence, it was believable because – let’s face it – a guy that big has to be pretty handy when it comes to fighting. Of course – as I said earlier – he doesn’t have anything even remotely resembling an American accent, and per the script I think we’re supposed to believe that he does. That’s a combination of baffling and laughable.
Beyond Neeson, Kruger is fine in her supporting role, and credit has to be given to Bruno Ganz (he of Downfall fame) who plays the former member of the Stasi. If Ganz is a perfectly able bodied man in real life then he’s done a great job of acting someone who is near death. Usually you can tell when an actor is near death in reality when you see them. Case in point; track down the episode of Alf that has the grandmother off the Goonies in it, or take a look at Gorilla Monsoon at Wrestlemania XV. Both will send a chill up your spine.
But when actors try to act ill when they are fine, it just doesn’t have the same effect. To me, Ganz looked like he was ready to go to Java, so to speak, but he’s still kicking about, so credit where it’s due.
And his two-hander scene with Langella is probably the best scene of the whole film.
Should You Watch Unknown?
Yeah. It’s easy to compare it to Hitchcock films which are and always will be classics, and when you do, Unknown will come up short. But on its own merit it is an interesting film with a nice ‘reveal’ at the end and an tried and tested concept behind it. Nobody in the cast does a bad job and when the only thing you can criticise it for are having too many chase/violence scenes as well as Liam Neeson’s accent, then that’s not too bad.
It’s not a classic, but it was good fun to watch and it kept me entertained throughout.
Of course, if Neeson, Ganz and Langella had played Qui-Gon Jinn, Adolf Hitler and Skeletor instead of the parts they did play, then this would have gone down as a classic.
We can all agree on that.