Unknown isn’t good, but that doesn’t matter these days. Movies are so rotten lately we’ve all lowered our standards out of sheer desperation. The new standard for movie-going is, “Can I risk it? Will I hate it so much it’ll give me a stroke right there in the theater? Will my eyes be seared by its visual ugliness, and my heart strained by its monstrous immorality? Or will I be able to sit through it safely in that nice restful theater darkness, and then mercifully forget it as I walk out into the dirty streets and go on with my life?”
If it’s not going to do us actual harm, good enough—we go. So we did go, all us movie-goers who are out of our teens, anyway. (The teens went to see I Am Number Four, poor saps.)
Unknown was marketed as a kind of posh follow-up to Taken, the low-budget 2008 hit that made Liam Neeson an action star. Like Taken, it’s got Neeson shambling around looking large and sad, and you have to wait for him to become large and mad, enough to start killing people who royally deserve it. But Unknown never really builds any momentum. It seems to take Neeson forever to figure anything out, forever to come to a boil, forever to unleash his Frankensteinian frame at anybody with malice aforethought. And then, after each rare instance of homicidal rage, he goes back to sad. That’s no way to run a railroad.
But on the other hand, there’s a lot of outdoor location shooting in Berlin in wintertime, which is austerely beautiful. I like snow in movies, so that was a big help.
As in Taken, Neeson’s playing an American having a rough trip to Europe, but this time he’s a professor of botany attending a conference with his hot young blonde wife (January Jones). If you’ve ever spent any time at universities and seen the moth-eaten professorial and professorial-spouse population, you already know this scenario is impossible, but it’s a movie, so what the hell. Just as Dr. and Mrs. Implausible are about to check in to the hotel, he remembers something they left back at the airport and leaps in a cab to go back for it, and then the sudden violent shit hits the fan and he wakes up out of a coma, hospitalized, four days later. He staggers back to the conference with a Band-aid on his forehead to signify the major head trauma he sustained, but now nobody will acknowledge him as the professor he says he is, including the hot blonde. Which makes this academic conference even more mortifying than they generally are, and that’s saying a lot.
So we’re in head-trip suspense movie territory here, meaning there will be as much mulling over his sanity as there will be savage ass-kicking. Okay—fine. That can work too, the whole identity-questioning thing between shoot-outs. But even if we regard Unknown with such a fine, generous, genre-savvy attitude, it still doesn’t work. The whole movie’s off-kilter, somehow.
Right from the start, the opening shot, everything’s distracting in the wrong way. You find yourself fixating on the details of casting, of performances, of shot compositions, of editing choices, because they stick out and seem pointlessly wrong. In a movie about international conspiracy and identity crisis and all that, you could argue that it’s intentional—you’re meant to feel uneasy about everything, all the details are meant to be dubious. But not THAT dubious.
Here’s an example. The opening sequence. You start above the clouds, coasting along over heavenly gorgeous sunlit clouds, presumably a view from a plane, but you don’t know that yet. Plenty of time to ponder this. Knowing too much about film, I started thinking these shots looked uncomfortably like the opening shots from Triumph of the Will, the famous Nazi propaganda film featuring Adolf Hitler as the godlike fuhrer descending out of sunlit clouds. Same kind of shots in sequence: first just the clouds, then making it clear we’re flying in a plane, then the dramatic descent, with directly-overhead shots of buildings below, and people, and statuary….jeez, what the hell is Unknown going to be, some sort of allegory about German history and identity and all that guff?
But Unknown gives you too much time to think, way too much time. Once we’re in the plane, drinking in Neeson as the professor and January Jones as the hot wife, the same kind of pointless oddity continues. Jones is too young for Neeson, and too small for Neeson, so that in a close-up of his hand holding hers, it looks like a big daddy-little daughter handclasp, or maybe an orangutan-human handclasp—awkward either way. And Jones gives a performance so blank it can’t really be classified. If she’d turned out to be a fem-bot, that would’ve been the only way to justify the round opaque eyes, the android tilts of the head, the way the lights are on but nobody’s home. I can’t give away what she actually does turn out to be—in fact, it’s hard to describe much past the first scenes without revealing the whole cumbersome plot—but it doesn’t matter, because her performance never changes.
There are some good actors here, though. Neeson has always been as reliable as an old shoe, and just about as exciting, but action movies do wonders for him, giving him great latent power. Suddenly his impressive size matters. His mild-mannered, introverted qualities can be read as the long slow burn before a Hulk-like rage erupts. He becomes an epic fight scene waiting to happen, and that’s what’s got to sustain you through a lot of Unknown.
Bruno Ganz is also in the movie—maybe because ever since Wings of Desire with Ganz as the black-and-white angel hanging around on Berlin rooftops looking soulful and envying mortals, movies in Berlin have to have Bruno Ganz—some local ordinance, perhaps. Anyway, he’s great as an old ex-Stasi agent who helps Neeson. He’s so effective as a reticent, once-powerful figure now put out to pasture, it’s a bit shaming, as if he’d decided to show the Hollywood types how it’s done, and so he makes every look and gesture a master-class in acting. There’s this great little thing he does when Neeson shows up at the door of his old-man apartment, a kind of small gesture to come inside, that I can’t even describe, but it’s so perceptive and right, I wanted to stand up and yell, “I believe in your existence, old man!”
Later this ex-Stasi guy tells Neeson to get him some more data to work with, and says a kind of signature line for his character: “Details. That used to be my specialty—deeee-tails.” It’s corny, shot in close-up, meant to be a big line with a frisson of the sinister, and the movie never really pays it off, but Ganz makes it work somehow, even with everything arrayed against him.
Ganz’s competitor in the Wily Old Actor Olympics is Frank Langella as Neeson’s university colleague. Langella and Ganz confront each other later in the film, and it’s one of those clash-of-the-titans scenes: Langella nearly burns out his retinas making his hooded eyes smolder meaningfully, while Ganz opts to underplay to the point of disappearance, a risky maneuver, but riveting if you like to watch act-offs.
Hang on, I’m making this movie sound kind of good. It really isn’t, but there’s a certain fascination to watching major talent tackle an uninspired genre film. It’s one of the notable pleasures of genre films, in fact. There’s such terrible dialogue in this film that there’s a certain thrill in seeing how the actors handle it, how much they can get by with, and what finally defeats even the best of them. When Neeson’s character meets Ganz’s, for example, and Ganz says he’s ex-Stasi, the two of them commence explaining to each other what Stasi means in a way that makes you feel that even highly-paid actors earn their money sometimes. “You mean the deadly, repressive state security force in East Germany during the Cold War which worked in close collaboration with the Soviet KGB?” That kinda thing.
German actress Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) does nice work playing the young woman who gets embroiled with Neeson in the crazy plot, and looks great in street clothes, jeans and tees and sweaters. (Since Unknown is a hit, there’ll probably be a sequel, and Kruger will probably get killed early on in it, a la Franka Potente in the second Bourne Identity movie, in order to give Neeson’s character a fresh reason to kill people).
Here for some reason she’s playing a Bosnian immigrant, and she also has to provide her own character description in a way that makes you want to punch the screenwriters. (Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, working from a novel by Didier van Cauwelaert, in case you give a damn.) What are those little fuckers paid for, if not to figure out how to establish characters gracefully and that sort of thing? But there’s poor Diane Kruger, running away from villains with Neeson, and suddenly she has to yell out, apropos of nothing, that she’s a Bosnian refugee and all her family was tortured and killed and blah blah blah.
When not blaming the writers for this, we can blame the director Jaume Collet-Serra, a Spanish guy who previously directed something called Orphan that I haven’t seen and now don’t want to. Judging by the Unknown visual style, he revels in having a lush budget to work with, and can capture cityscapes and slick car-chases all right. But he’s got a weird sense of pacing—long sagging interludes—and a sad lack of control overall. Still, by our new movie-going standards, he’s practically Hitchcock reborn.
I forgot Unknown by the time I got to the car; it was a real act of will to call it up again long enough to review it, and I’m already forgetting it again. For this I am truly grateful.
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