Bourne again. Again.
****WARNING! May contain spoilers****
With the explosion in increasingly gimmicky 3D, it’s good to see a film that relies on a derivative story and unbelievably obvious plot twists to instil a mild sense of befuddlement in its audience.
On the eve of a historic biotechnology conference, Dr Martin Harris (Liam Neeson playing the most implausible scientist since the Governator in Junior) and his lovely younger wife Liz (bland Thunderbird puppet January Jones) fly into Berlin; he’s giving a speech and she’s planning to hit the art galleries. But upon arrival at the hotel Martin discovers he’s left his briefcase on the luggage trolley back at the airport. Doh! So, leaving Liz to check into the hotel, he jumps into a cab and hotfoots it back to the airport. Unfortunately, fate leaps in front of the cab in the form of a runaway fridge, forcing the taxi to crash into the river in the process. Waking from a coma four days later, Martin finds his wife doesn’t recognise him, an imposter (Aidan Quinn) has taken his place and strangers keep trying to kill him. Aided only by the illegal immigrant cab driver/waitress who saved him from a watery grave (Diane Kruger), can Martin take back his life and foil the bad guys?
Don’t be alarmed if you experience an overwhelming sensation of déjà vu while watching Unknown. Relax. Take a deep breath. You don’t have amnesia. You have seen this film before. It probably starred Matt Damon (The Bourne Identity), it was set on Mars (Total Recall), might have involved tattoos (Memento) and they all lived happily ever after (50 First Dates). You probably quite enjoyed it. And if you do have amnesia and don’t remember any of these films, you’ll probably find Unknown a fresh, original take on the paranoid conspiracy thriller. If you’ve never seen any of these films.
There’s a lot to enjoy about Unknown but the originality of the story isn’t one of them. The amnesiac’s bumbling search for identity has been a clichéd staple of movies ever since Hitchcock made Spellbound and each film follows more or less the same formula. The main character has usually suffered some form of trauma (Neeson bumps his head, Matt Damon’s Bourne took a couple of slugs in the back, Schwarzenegger is forced to screw Sharon Stone) causing conveniently cinematic amnesia. The kind people only get in movies. They forget who they are but they retain the ability to speak and think, their motor and kung fu skills and, more importantly, their bowel control. Face it, Jason Bourne wouldn’t have been half as attractive a protagonist if he’d spent The Bourne Identity as a gibbering imbecile lying in his own faeces. The protagonist will conveniently find an attractive assistant (Neeson has Kruger, Memento’s Guy Pearce gets Joe Pantoliano) and together they’ll discover some predictable hard truths. More often than not the hero turns out to have been a remorseless super-assassin and stricken by conscience, he’ll try to thwart the bad guys’ plans which usually entail killing all the innocent mutants on Mars (Total Recall) or blowing up Niagra Falls (The Long Kiss Goodnight). Sometimes however ignorance is bliss. Imagine being Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates and waking up every morning to find you’re married to Adam Sandler?
As an audience, amnesia fascinates us. Identity is dependent on memory; when characters lose their memory they lose themselves. They’re free to recreate themselves, to start over. But there’s always that niggling curiosity dragging them back and driving the film. Knowledge becomes both an obsession and a burden; enlightenment always comes at a heavy price. Unknown flirts with some of these ideas and there are some genuinely unsettling moments in the first 40 minutes or so where Neeson’s vulnerable, anxious Martin questions his own sanity, his sense of reality. Then the film-makers remember where their strengths lie and shoehorn in as many opportunities as possible for Neeson to punch people in the face.
Mechanically efficient, Unknown supplies the requisite action movie thrills but never really engages and at close to two hours is at least 20 minutes too long. The cast are uniformly good (well, ok at any rate), with the possible exception of January Jones who’s so wooden she creaks, but you can’t shake the feeling that some of them (cough…Frank Langella) are phoning in their performances. Much like the film, they’re just going through the motions. Kruger is a feisty and vulnerable as the heroine while Neeson handles the thick-ear action moments admirably and does look genuinely confused for much of the film, though whether he’s acting or is trying to understand the script we’re never sure. Only Bruno Ganz sparkles however as a sympathetic, if threadbare, former Stasi member who comes to Neeson’s aid and helpfully explains most of the plot. A wintry Berlin makes for an authentically alien, hostile environment and while the plot is implausible, Unknown never actually comes right out and insults your intelligence. Until the over-the-top climax where Neeson slugs it out in an exploding hotel.
Just once though wouldn’t it be nice to see a film where the amnesiac protagonist regains his memory, realises he wasn’t a particularly nice guy (the Bourne movies, Total Recall) and instead of getting an attack of conscience and thwarting the bad guys, saving the innocent and adopting a dog, he actually went back to a life of all round evil-doing? Until his taxi hits a fridge, Neeson actually appears to have a pretty sweet life, jet-setting around the world committing terrorist acts for fun and profit. Would he really give that up for a taxi driver even if she does look like Diane Kruger?
Trotting out every hoary old amnesia cliché you can think of, Unknown is by the numbers film-making. It’s well enough made, mildly entertaining and has one or two genuinely unsettling moments but ultimately it’s…forgettable.
Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella
Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell