Friday 30 December 2011

Movie Review: Unknown (2011)

A slick and nimble thriller with all the requisite chases and stunts, Unknown distinguishes itself with a cunning story that gets progressively better as the film peels away the outer layers of characters and events.

American scientist Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife Liz (January Jones) fly into Berlin to attend a high profile international conference on biotechnology, hosted by Dr. Bressler (Sebastian Koch) and sponsored by Prince Shada (Mido Hamada). Upon arriving at the Hotel Adlon, Martin realizes that he forgot his briefcase at the airport. The ride back to the airport ends in disaster: a multi-vehicle crash launches the taxi off a bridge and into a river. Martin is saved from drowning by the taxi driver Gina (Diane Kruger), but loses consciousness and wakes up in hospital a few days later.

Martin rushes back to the Hotel Adlon and is shocked to find Liz insisting that she does not know him. Furthermore, Liz is with another man (Aidan Quinn) claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris. Thrown out into the street in a foreign city, Martin has to struggle to re-establish his identity, and he seeks the help of Gina as well as local private investigator Herr Jurgen (Bruno Ganz) and colleague Professor Cole (Frank Langella). Before long, Martin also finds himself the target of brutal assassins.

Unknown is a clever, high intensity thriller. It starts out on familiar stranger-in-a-strange-land territory, with many elements borrowed from movies like Frantic. But once the intricate plot behind the case of lost identity starts to reveal itself, Unknown is elevated to that unique sub-set of action movies where all the pieces of the puzzle fall smartly into place, and even the wilder stunt scenes are provided with context.

The script by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwall makes the most of Berlin, with a specific tip of the hat to the history of the city as a Cold War cauldron, as Jurgen openly reveals himself to be a former Stasi agent, a cue for Unknown to take a pleasurable journey that links vintage spy methods with modern-day economic challenges and terrorist threats.

Liam Neeson is excellent in a role that would have been offered to Harrison Ford a decade earlier. Neeson is better at expressing tortured frustration, and conveys Martin's boiling emotions as he doggedly sets out to reclaim his identity. January Jones only needs to be the icy blond and she does it well, while Diane Kruger builds on her role in Inglourious Basterds with an affecting performance as an illegal immigrant who finds herself unwillingly pressed into service as Martin's guardian angel.

As it hurtles to an explosive climax, Unknown nails a most difficult stunt: the thriller that is thoughtful, exciting, and unpredictable.

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