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“Unknown” is mostly dumb. It begins in the wrong place, telegraphs its big reveal, then gives us one of the worst lines in movies to justify the plot after the reveal. It might’ve been a smart thriller in the 1970s but our age needs to feel uplifted. We’re too cowardly and depressed to want anything but heroic and happy.
Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, an American professor visiting a bio-tech conference in Berlin with his beautiful wife, Liz (January Jones). We see them on the airplane, going through customs, arriving at their swanky hotel. But the cabdriver missed Martin’s briefcase at the airport so he hails another cab and goes back. Good luck: The cab driver is the best-looking cab driver in the world, Gina, played by Diane Kruger. Bad luck: there’s a multicar accident, they go over a bridge and into the icy water below. He’s banged up and in a coma for four days. She disappears after saving him.
When he recovers, he’s a John Doe in the hospital. Nobody knows who he is.
He assumes his wife is distraught so he rushes out of the hospital and back to the swanky hotel, where the dignitaries are in the middle of a conference. From afar, he sees his wife in a nice backless dress, but she has no idea who he is. Moreover, there’s another Dr. Martin Harris, played by Aidan Quinn, and this guy has all the right credentials. Our Martin Harris has no credentials.
For the next 20 minutes of screen time, our Martin Harris fights, then acquiesces to, his loss of identity. His university website includes a picture of the other Martin Harris. The other Martin Harris knows the details, the same details, down to the same words, of his relationship with Liz, and how, over the phone and via email, he described that relationship to Prof. Leo Bressler (Sebastian Koch of “The Lives of Others”), the man hosting the bio-tech conference, who has, unfortunately, never seen him. Our Martin Harris moons outside of restaurants, where his beautiful wife dines with the other guy. He begins to doubt his own mind.
Three thoughts at this point:
- No Skype for these scientists?
- The movie really should’ve begun at the accident site, or at the hospital, so we could doubt his mind with him. But we saw him arrive in Berlin with Liz. We know he’s the real Martin Harris. We’re just wondering how and why this is happening.
- You could argue his tragedy at this point is less the loss of his identity than the loss of his wife. He’s been cuckolded in plain sight. It helps that she’s young and beautiful. Imagine him mooning outside a restaurant where some fat cow gorged herself. You’d have a whole other movie. Maybe a better one.
After attempts are made on his life, he snaps out of it and quickly assembles a kind of crew: Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz of “Wings of Desire” and “Downfall”), a former Stasi official, who’s an expert at finding missing people; and Gina, the cab driver, an illegal immigrant (Kruger, German, plays Bosnian), who eventually confirms he is who he thinks he is. She also lets him come back to her place for a shower. Nice lady. Nice cabdriver. Cue Prince:
Lady cab driver -- Can U take me 4 a ride?
Don't know where I'm goin' 'cuz I don't know where I've been
Kidding. No Prince here. No sex, either. Just gun fights and car chases and New Order.
Jürgen, a secondary character, steals the movie. He’s proud of his immoral past and good at what he does. And he quickly figures out the obvious. One of the guests at the bio-tech conference, Prince Shada (Mido Hamada), is a progressive Arab who has already survived one assassination attempt. Jürgen assumes the new Martin Harris is an assassin to take out Prince Shada. Section 15, a legendary assassination unit, is mentioned. Then Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), shows up in Berlin, claiming several phone calls from Martin, and he visits Jürgen, who figures out Cole is the leader of Section 15. They have a tête-à-tête, maybe the best scene in the movie, before Jürgen kills himself like a good soldier.
By this point, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll add up the following:
- When Martin first arrives in Berlin and is asked the purpose of his visit, he responds, “I’m here to give a lecture at a bio-tech conference.” Liz teases him about it in a way that could be wifely but could be more.
- When he first wakes up in the hospital, the doctor asks him no long-term memory questions.
- His memories of Liz include a recurring scene in which she has dark hair and says, “Are you ready?”
Jürgen, dying, provides the giveaway. He says to Cole, “What if he remembers everything?”
He’s the assassin. Our Martin. He went into a coma and when he woke up he only remembered the cover, he didn’t remember his true identity.
A bummer they telegraphed it—I would’ve removed the “Are you ready?” scenes—but also an opportunity. All this time, we’ve basically been rooting for a guy who turns out to be the villain. What happens now? Do we get flashbacks to all the people he’s killed? Maybe his memory is fully restored, and in that restoration his true personality emerges, and he has to kill Gina who knows too much? Can they make us horrified that we once cared about him? Can they do something darkly 1970s and Alan J. Pakula-ish?
Not even close. Instead, he and Gina have a heart-to-heart. When they were first set upon by German assassins, she slapped his face, saying angrily (and historically inaccurately), “My family in Bosnia was killed by people like that!” Now he’s a person like that. So what does she do?
She says one of the worst lines in movies this year: “What matters is what you do now, Martin.”
Holy crap, that’s bad. One of the themes of “Unknown” is amnesia—both personal and national. “We Germans are experts at forgetting,” Jürgen says upon meeting Martin. “We forgot we were Nazis. Now we have forgotten 40 years of Communism—all gone.” It’s not a positive, this forgetting. But suddenly it is. So that we may have our action-hero ending.
Which we get. The assassin becomes the anti-assassin and foils the plot—which turns out to be more complicated—and beats up the other Martin. Liz, meanwhile, gets blown up through her own incompetence. And in the end, Martin, our Martin, and Gina, his new beautiful blonde, with new names and new fake passports, have a light, whimsical exchange as they prepare to travel:
Gina: [opening her new passport] Claudia Marie Taylor. I like it.
Harris: It suits you.
Gina: Who are you?
Harris: Henry. Henry Taylor.
Gina: Nice to meet you, Mr. Taylor.
Harris: Nice to meet you...
Where are they going? Unknown. What is our protagonist’s real name and real past and real personality? Unknown. What is our capacity for absorbing bullshit like this? Unknown.
What matters is what you do now, Hollywood.
August 22, 2011
© 2011 Erik Lundegaard