The 2011 Jaume Collet-Serra (2005’s House of Wax remake) directed Unknown is unfortunately one of those films which has so much wrong with it in the first five minutes that anything which comes after, no matter how wonderful, simply won’t make up for what has already occurred. And, unfortunately, in the case of Unknown, nothing great comes after the first five minutes.
As it is these first five minutes which really set the tone for this poor outing for everyone involved, including star Liam Neeson, I don’t feel as though I’ll be giving anything away if I delve a little into what actually occurs up front (again, no real spoilers here, these are the first few minutes of the film we’re talking about). Unknown starts with a husband (Neeson as Martin Harris) and wife (January Jones as Elizabeth Harris) arriving in Berlin for a biotechnology summit where Martin will be speaking. You know this because he informs the customs agent about it. No, he can’t possibly say he’s there for “business” as everyone would do, he explains that he delves into the fact that he’s speaking at the summit to the agent. The script by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell is aware of how foolish it is to actually have Martin state that because his wife makes fun of him on the way out of the airport.
Next, Martin, as people often (but not always) do, helps the cabbie put the bags into the truck. Or, he does that right up until there is but one bag left on the cart, the most important bag he has, his briefcase. Elizabeth though orders him into the car (January Jones seems to slip into the role of Betty Francis for the ultra-icy order a little too easily) and so Martin leaves his most important bag, the one many of us would choose to take into the passenger portion of the taxi ourselves rather than leave in the trunk, for the cabbie. For his part, the cabbie acts sensibly, Martin has been helping therefore the cabbie assumes Martin will continue helping (and what moron who has been helping would only leave his briefcase on the cart) and doesn’t check for the rest of the bags, leaving the briefcase behind.
Indulge me for another minute here, dear reader, we’re almost through.
The couple arrives at the hotel, Martin again opts to help with the bags while Elizabeth goes to check in. Martin realizes the briefcase isn’t present and, rather than taking three seconds to tell his wife he’s leaving, just hops in a cab and goes back to the airport leaving his wife alone at a hotel in a foreign city with nary a word.
There are in that description of the opening of the film far too many instances of people (Martin) acting in ridiculous fashion for anyone to possibly accept anything that comes after as remotely sensible. No, it has the feel of a movie where everyone working on it knew where they wanted the story to go but as they had no way to get there sensibly they just made up the most ridiculous opening that they could which would put the pieces in motion (not having read the book on which the film is based, I’m assuming—perhaps wrongly—that Didier Van Caulwelaert and Mark Polizzotti comes up with something moderately more feasible).
Truly, the basic idea behind the movie, that Martin Harris loses his memory and someone takes over his life, isn’t a bad one. But, the way the entire thing is carried it you can almost sense the writers’ giddiness at their knowing where the entire plot is going. There has to be a twist to the entire thing and you can almost hear the glee that every on the production feel at just how fantastic their twist is going to be. The truth is that it’s not a bad a twist, but by the time the film gets to that oh-so-shocking moment they have made so many missteps that no one watching is possibly going to care.
At some point I lose track of what I should point out as the movies’ obvious foolishness and what I should let you, the reader and potential viewer, work out for yourselves. My slightly elongated description of the start of the film points out several up front flaws that destroy the rest of the movie, but the flaws and obvious lies throughout the rest are legion.
Unknown isn’t even made better by the performances of the actors. Neeson, while a good thinking man’s actor and a man who can invest his characters with a great presence and sense of self, isn’t the action hero that the film at times demands. The rest of the cast are names you may know from Aidan Quinn and Frank Langella to Diane Kruger and Bruno Ganz. While everyone performs in perfectly serviceable fashion, there really is no standout.
The technical aspects of the release are, unquestionably, the film’s highlight. Black levels are excellent, the muted palette used to depict Berlin really helps set the tone and enhances the feel of the location shooting. The level of detail is very good as well. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 channel audio track, too, is quite good. Even if Neeson clearly isn’t an action hero, the sound design during the fight scenes is excellent, as is the work when a taxi cab finds itself in the middle of the river. Sadly, delivering a good picture and good sound doesn’t make up for the rest of the film.
Even the extras on Unknown fail to impress. There are two short (under 4:30 a piece) standard EPK-type featurettes. One is on Neeson and one is one the film/characters as a whole. The latter of these even leaves the “Coming Soon” screen at the end of the piece which certainly only heightens the impression that it is one of those featurettes you see as an advertisement if you get to the theater early. The Blu-ray also comes with a DVD and digital copy. A word of caution on that however, our review copy came with a smudged, indecipherable, code for the digital copy thereby eliminating our ability to download it. I have requested WB’s support on the matter and am waiting to hear back (this review will be updated as needed when/if I hear anything).*
I wanted to like Unknown so very much. Neeson and the rest of the actors have the ability to be exceptionally compelling, and with the right material handled the right way they all are. This movie though isn’t the right material, it certainly isn’t handled the right way, and what’s worse is that anyone watching will pick up on how disappointing the entire 113 minutes is going to be in the first five. At some point, some one should have figured out the problems and corrected them. That didn’t happen however and the film is truly distressing because of it.
* In a credit to the WB digital copy support group, it took less than a day to get a new, working, code.