Feb

18

 UNKNOWN

Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera

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

The ubiquitous trailer for UNKNOWN captures a nightmare many fear: What if we are suddenly non-persons in a life we seem not to control or belong to?

Taking an Olympian view over this nail-biter thriller, casting had to be all important; in some important roles, it is cunningly counterintuitive. Some people are always good guys—Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Harrison Ford (most of the time), Sandra Bullock—and some people are bad (usually men with unfortunate complexions, uneven features, insincere rictus smiles or dysfunction of one or both eyes, legs, or other bodily part).

Here tall, handsome, accomplished Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) [A] arrives in Berlin with his gorgeous wife, Liz (January Jones, the stunner from Mad Men) for a professional convention of botanists. Very quickly, events take a disorienting turn, as Harris/A cabs back in a heavy snow to the airport for a forgotten piece of luggage, while his wife checks into their 5-star Hotel Adlon. He experiences a major accident that puts him into a coma. Luckily, it is Berlin, not Lesotho, so medical care is both swiftly competent and available in [accented] American English.

East Berlin and West Berlin sites are melded as backdrop for this homeless, placeless, stateless person. Car chases of unusual ferocity utilize the U-Bahn and Museum Island, edgy Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Studio Babelsberg (the world's oldest major film studio, a century old)—during which we cannot conceive of our man managing to elude the assassins who murder a number of earnest if subsidiary characters every few minutes, in hospitals, corridors, stairwells and garages.

His attempts to rejoin his gorgeous wife, a shoo-in for a latter-day Grace Kelly, at the swanky conference repeatedly meet with perplexing…stonewalling. She politely fails to recognize him, and points to someone else (Aidan Quinn, obviously not embodying one of his more ardent romantic roles) as her husband, Dr. Martin Harris [B]. Our man, now out of hospital, unshaven and dumbfounded, is pursued at every turn by would-be menace, scalpel-thin Germanic thugs with icy cheekbones who could double for James Bond nemeses, as he manages to escape from them sans passport or identifying documents, handicapped by disbelief from everyone he meets. Why? What do they want from him?

It does not help that snow is falling, he speaks no German, the Brandenburg Gate and vestigial relics from WWII, plus the Germanic obsession for documentation, offer chilling subliminal prompts.

How can he prove he is who he is? The audience is no more informed than the protagonist, and we root for him as he dredges up colleagues back home to call, rakes through papers to find something he can use to prove his identity. A photo, a book, anything. Bruno Ganz, ex-STASI, appears as Herr Jurgen, the feared East German secret police who until recently instilled terror into the blood trees of anyone coming into physical proximity. He is now a Berliner without a particular calling, as his keen brain and intuitive understanding of wrenching information from victims is no longer prized. Ganz is a marvel, as brilliant here as he was in The Reader (2008), inhabiting his rueful ex-torturer's persona without fireworks, but with minimal-maximalist conviction.

Returning to the meme of casting tells, the observant viewer notes how beautiful his cabbie, Gina, had been (Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds, 2009; National Treasure, 2004). Clue: You don't waste beauties in bit parts of rescuing the protagonist with a tire-iron and then forget about her. Frank Langella hoves into view in the latter half. Another key player. A versatile actor's actor given to textured, complex oil paintings of characters (Frost/Nixon, 2008; Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, 2010), there is more here, too, than meets the casual eye.

While reflection reveals a number of truck-sized holes in the story, producer Joel Silver sums up the cat-and-mouse, the reason this genre of film stays around so long. Audiences live vicariously in trying to figure them out. "This film gives you both worlds. It's a ride that keeps you on the edge of your seat" … and keeps you guessing.


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