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YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Unknown: This film is unknowable

By
February 17, 2011 |

For a time, this is a slick audience involvement picture: We empathize completely with poor Liam Neeson, and wonder what we might do next, to solve such a baffling predicament.

Then, as answers begin to flow and the narrative shifts into its third act, Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s script becomes increasingly contrived and develops a serious case of The Stupids.

In the final scene, as the camera pulls back from a train departing from an ultra-modern station in Berlin, it becomes clear that we’ve been had. Because of several final-act revelations, earlier parts of the story don’t hold together well. Indeed, the conclusion itself leaves a big, fat question that’s likely to raise the eyebrows of any psychologists and human behaviorists in the audience.

That’s a shame, because the first act develops the premise quite well, and suggests that we’re in for an intelligent suspense thriller.

Martin Harris (Neeson), a scientist, and his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), have arrived in Berlin to participate in a high-profile biotech conference. As they depart the airport via taxi, Martin accidentally leaves his briefcase behind, on the sidewalk; among other things, it contains his passport and all other ID.

(Just in passing, most guys I know would keep their identification in a wallet, in a pocket or belly pack – particularly in a foreign country! – but that’s not too large a pill to swallow.)

As they reach their hotel, Martin realizes what has happened; leaving Elizabeth to check in, he grabs another taxi and starts back to the airport. He never makes it. A freak road accident – very well staged – sends the taxi plunging from a bridge and into a river. Having been knocked unconscious, he’s just barely pulled out in time by the resourceful cab driver (Diane Kruger).

When Martin regains consciousness, he’s in a hospital; four days have passed. He remembers most of what happened, and knows enough to realize that his wife must be frantic; because his American patient arrived with no identification, the attending doctor had no way of notifying her (or anybody else).

Additional minor details are glossed over here. Even with socialized health care, the hospital staff’s failure to mention money seems a bit odd; odder still is the absence of any police officers or American Embassy personnel, who’d quite reasonably want to know more about this mystery man. (The “explanation” for the absence of American Embassy folks – that this is Thanksgiving weekend – is a bit thin.)

Still, these remain small oversights: not enough to impede our mounting curiosity.

Martin soon insists that he must leave, must return to his wife, and his hotel. He does so, catches sight of her at a reception for members of the biotech conference … and she looks straight into his face, with a puzzled expression, and insists that she doesn’t know him. Worse yet, her statement is confirmed when her husband – claiming to be Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn), and wearing a picture name tag to prove it – asks the hotel staff to remove this obviously daft stranger.

Our hero – initially puzzled, rapidly sliding into distraught and terrified – is smart enough to avoid making a scene; he’s therefore allowed to leave quietly. But now he’s alone in a strange city, where he can’t speak the language, with no ID and only the cash that was crammed into his pockets.

And shakily doubting his own senses and memories.

What would you do?

OK, not exactly a fair question.

Happily, for a time, Martin behaves fairly intelligently. Basic sleuthing eventually leads him to Gina, the cab driver who saved his life; the kindness of his hospital nurse takes him to Ernst Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), a former East German Stasi (secret police) agent who now occupies his time as something of a private detective.

Jurgen is a great character, and Ganz plays him with cunning complexity. Although betrayed by his aging body, this man’s mind is as sharp as ever, and he has the means to exploit contacts throughout Berlin who still fear him.

“It’s all about details,” he tells Martin, “and I was always good with details.”

Alas, shortly after Martin makes this important ally, director Jaume Collet-Serra loses control of his picture. The tonal shift is glaring, and occurs with the arrival of a dog-nuts car chase: reasonably inventive, but still rather silly and much too protracted.

And how many times can we watch Neeson shift gears? Collet-Serra treats that minor hand movement as though it’s the height of dramatic intensity; believe me, it isn’t.

This is a step up for Collet-Serra, formerly involved with TV commercials and music videos, who transitioned to the big screen in 2005 with minor-league horror flicks such as “Orphan” and “House of Wax” (the latter still notorious for Paris Hilton’s gory death scene). These rather insignificant credits aside, Collet-Serra has a nice sense of mood and atmosphere, and he extracts persuasive performances from every member of his cast.

Unfortunately, Collet-Serra’s controlling hand seems to vanish with the arrival of that car chase, at which point co-producer Joel Silver’s bombastic touch becomes more pronounced. A typical Joel Silver flick is noisy, fast-paced and dumb, and – sadly – that’s a good description for the third act of this one, as well.

Too bad. Up to this point, we’re reasonably captivated by the storyline. Neeson makes a thoroughly credible protagonist; he effectively conveys the frustration of a guy trying to focus on solving the problem, while holding his mounting desperation at bay. He’s a solid good guy, and we’re firmly in his corner.

Kruger, well remembered from “Inglourious Basterds” and the “National Treasure” franchise, contributes a solid supporting role as Gina, the cab driver. Her character’s back-story is well sketched, so that her willingness to help Martin – when he finally tracks her down – seems credible.

The production values are first-rate, and the film actually was shot in Berlin, which adds to the story’s verisimilitude. Indeed, all the elements are in place for a first-rate thriller, which makes this script’s third-act ride off the rails even more frustrating.

We eventually realize, in hindsight, that one character’s entire presence is completely superfluous: nothing more than a way to kill time. Worse still, another character’s behavior, at the climax, is so daft as to defy description.

Neeson clearly wanted an action-oriented follow-up to 2008’s “Taken,” which he helped make into a slick thriller. Sadly, as often is the case, he should have waited for a better script … because this one abuses our trust.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at  www.davisenterprise.com

****************

Three stars; rated PG-13 for action violence and brief sensuality

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella

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