A solid but soulless adaptation

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

Sleek and, until a stupidly violent climax, very entertaining, Unknown is the opposite of Memento. It’s about a man who knows who he is but everybody around him has forgotten, or thinks he’s delusional, or lying.


In other words, it’s a metaphor for the film industry.

Liam Neeson stars. Thanks in no small part to the popular 2008 revenge picture Taken, Neeson needn’t worry about being forgotten. He’s a good actor and his own kind of action star. More subtly than Harrison Ford, Neeson excels at the slow fuse snaking its way to explosive revenge.

Arriving in Berlin for a biotechnology summit, botanist Martin Harris and his wife, Liz, check into their hotel. Harris instantly realizes he has left a crucial suitcase on a luggage cart back at the airport. One near-fatal taxicab accident later, Harris is in a coma. When he comes out of it, everything has changed. Liz, played by January Jones with a petulance above and beyond what the script requires, believes the man claiming to be her husband is a stalker. The “real” Martin Harris, played by Aidan Quinn, makes a convincing account of Harris’ resume, biography, memories, all the quotidian details that make up a lifetime. It’s up to Martin (Neeson edition) to persuade the one woman who believes him, the undocumented Bosnian cabdriver played by Diane Kruger, and to figure out what’s behind the curtain of deceit.

This being a thriller produced by Joel Silver, most of the tangy, witty original novel, by French novelist Didier van Cauwelaert, has been stripped away to make room for not one but two bombastic car chases, and for a much higher body count. The protagonist’s philosophical musings and self-loathing? Gone. (Sample observation from the book to be found nowhere near the film: “I know why the other man is a fake. You can see it in his face, his ease, his detachment. He has never known shame, has never sought out the contempt in a girl’s eyes.”)



But on its own Joel Silver terms, Unknown is engaging, and better directed than you’d expect coming from director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax, Orphan). He and cinematographer Flavio Labiano make Berlin in wintertime as glamorous as that sounds. No, I kid, Berlin. But each suspicious glance, every chilly, gray, sunless interior, adds to the menace. The movie plays an effective guessing game. The supporting players include Bruno Ganz as an ex-Stasi agent and Frank Langella as Harris’ botany colleague from the states. The movie is all about its plot, and about a corkscrew storytelling development late in the game that will either work for you or won’t.

It worked for me, largely because Neeson and Kruger play their scenes for relatable emotion and plausibly high stakes, no matter how cockamamie the developments. A more faithful adaptation of the novel might’ve made a great black comedy as directed by, say, Roman Polanski. This is not that movie. Yet the cast, the location work, even the judicious computer-generated effects carry the day with conviction, and Neeson guides Unknown like the calm-before-the-storm professional he is.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond:letters@boulderweekly.com