Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Unknown Identity

As I sat enjoying how Unknown builds some interesting atmosphere and considerable tension to its own credit, I was pleasantly entertained by how its derivative plot echoes classic thrillers such as Vertigo, North by Northwest, and The Bourne Identity, and a lesser known Gregory Peck thriller, Mirage (1965), in which a physicist suffers amnesia, endeavors to substantiate his identity, and runs into a plot to get his secret formula for a clean atomic bomb. Dubious identity, deception, amnesia, assassination plots, secret formulas: all of these elements can be found in the thrillers listed above as well as in Unknown, the new thriller starring Liam Neeson as a man who may or may not be bio-physicist Martin Harris.

In addition, the visually engaging atmosphere of snowy Berlin, and plot elements such as the ex-Stasi inspector, played by Bruno Ganz, evoke those splendidly intricate, somber Cold War thrillers of the 1960s, classic films like The Ipcress File (1965) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), as well as the more obscure A Dandy in Aspic (1968), a favorite of mine, with Laurence Harvey as a British double-agent and assassin hounded by a monomaniacal Tom Courtenay, with East Berlin evoked as a dismal Cold War limbo.

I liked how Unknown taps into that bygone genre. We have the bearded doctor, who looks like Freud, going on about the mysteries of the human brain; Ganz’s great performance as the proud ex-Stasi, dying of lung cancer from cheap Commie cigarettes, who can tell when a man is lying or not; and all the uptight German officials demanding Martin’s passport, while underlings smirk superciliously in disbelief. Diane Kruger does a wonderful job of adding to the trappings of that genre by portraying Gina, the street-smart Bosnian illegal alien, a taxi driver until a fateful accident lands Martin and her in the Spree. Kruger as Gina is feisty and resourceful, and I love her tight-lipped, accented English, and her tongue-in-cheek delivery that recalls Inglourious Basterds.

Yep, there’s nothing new in Unknown, but I have to admit I enjoyed watching it until the ending throws Neeson’s character into a 360 that’s hard to justify. The setting engages, the inevitable car chase has its thrills, and the acting is more than serviceable. Neeson has cast a mold that he repeats with solid presence in numerous films (Unknown resembles Taken (2008) in many ways). Ganz stands out for his textured portrayal of the old Stasi inspector, and Kruger is fun to watch as she bravely helps Martin when all she really wants to do is make enough money so she can get out of "zhis place." As Martin’s wife (or is she?), January Jones is attractive, bland, and affectless, though her soft delivery might remind you of Janet Leigh, which is at least in keeping with the film’s Hitchcockian aspirations.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice analysis. You liked the film more than I did, although I too liked working out the film allusions. Did you think of The Lady Vanishes insofar as it also concerns someone knocked on the head, semi-amnesic, and then plunged into a weird situation where no one will back up what she's saying?

I was bothered by the way most of the actors came from better movies (and so the film keeps reminding you of better movies). Neeson lumbers about, looking concerned. Given the big twist towards the end, one could assume that Neeson's character's wife and the fake version of himself could have just pulled him aside and explained the situation to him calmly, and therefore saved the story from much hugger-muggery, but that would have been too easy.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment, FilmDr. That plot element - as in The Lady Vanishes - has been used so many times. It's a stock plot device for this sort of "Cold War" thriller. Yes, the ending is disappointing because it is so fraught with logic loopholes. Your suggestion is viable. My problem was SPOILER ALERT - Neeson's character was an assassin so now that he's been discarded due to his head problem, he's a good guy now? Yeah, I can see how he'd be bitter that they wanted to kill him, but now he waltzes off with Gina - and he's been trained to commit murder and who knows what else he's done!