Many will walk out of “Unknown” wishing that the slightly “Bourne”-esque espionage thriller about identity and memory (and Monsanto’s worst nightmare) was directed by Paul Greengrass (or even Doug Liman). I would have preferred it to be the Hollywood debut of “The Lives of Others” director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who instead went and made “The Tourist.” Based on the novel “Out of My Head,” by French author Didier van Cauwelaert, “Unknown” was in fact directed by Barcelona-born Jaume Collet-Serra (“Orphan”), and if the book is as comically absurd as I’m thinking it is, perhaps Warner Bros. chose correctly. The film, which was scripted by Oliver Butcher (“Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde”) and Stephen Cornwell (son of espionage fiction legend John le Carré, as it turns out), is rather silly. Its other major theme is the development of a cure for world hunger, after all. The plot, about a botanist (Liam Neeson) attending a conference in Berlin who wakes from an accident to find his identity and wife (January Jones) stolen by an impostor (Aidan Quinn), is surely a midpoint between Bourne and the worst of James Bond with a bit of “Twilight Zone” thrown in.
But even if the story and its direction is appropriately corny, that doesn’t mean it has to be so ridiculous as to aim for reviews that call it “fun” (which, in a manner of terminology, it is). There really could be more to the ideas raised by the character played by the brilliant Bruno Ganz (“The Reader”) — the unanimously agreed best part of this movie — about Germany being a fitting place for amnesia. “Germans are good at forgetting,” he tells the ‘right man’ protagonist, because first they had to forget about being Nazis and then they had to forget about being communists. Ganz, by the way, plays a former Stasi, and could therefore be thought of as the character from “The Lives of Others” 25 years later. Also linking “Unknown” to that excellent spy film is Sebastian Koch, this time playing another sort of radical (he’s the one with the corny cure).
An actual German filmmaker might also have depicted Berlin as a real place and not just a pastiche of cliches. You can bet there is a scene in a club pumping with techno and a keg truck being smashed during a car chase, with beer flowing and spraying all over the road. Of course, the stereotyping goes with Ganz’s joke, I guess, because the movie continually plays with German identity as subtext to the literal story of foggy identities going on with the characters.
And having a non-German director goes along with the non-German authors and the fact that the Irish Neeson plays a guy from New Hampshire and the German actress Diane Kruger plays a woman from Bosnia. Jones seems to have some sort of accent too, but I couldn’t place it. It likely wasn’t even intentional (she’s the opposite of Ganz, unanimously agreed as the worst part of the film). There is also a thing to do with close ups, both as part of the film’s cinematographic choices and an art exhibit involving close-up shots of faces that figures prominently. I don’t know if this focus on faces truly means to comment on the way we identify people primarily through the face rather than the personality, but it obviously has some purpose. Something more to do with the allegorical commentary on German memory? Unfortunately, aside from Ganz’s statement, the film is never so explicit.
Maybe the film itself is intended to have identity trouble of its own. Somewhere between a dry comedy and a thriller, not quite an American movie and not quite a foreign film, I can definitely see audiences confused about what “Unknown” wants to be. I think I got more out of it than most will, but I also think I took away more than was actually there. I also didn’t pick up on the twist before it came, like some others did. I didn’t care enough to look, expecting something even more terrible than what it really is. I was having too much fun with how bizarrely it combines such smart and idiotic sequences and dialogue (other than the Ganz scenes, I loved the one pictured above, with Neeson and Quinn attempting to prove they’re each the real Martin Harris) to result in something that’s probably both too clever for dummies and too dumb for intelligent viewers. I think I identify somewhere between those extremes, though, so I didn’t mind a bit.
Anyway, the one thing you must not do if you decide to see “Unknown” is bother comparing it to “Taken.” It’s got as much in common with that movie as it does with “Schindler’s List.”