Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Movie Review: Unknown

Unknown **
Directed by:
Jaume Collet-Serra.
Written By: Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell based on the novel Out of My Head by
Didier Van Cauwelaert.
Starring: Liam Neeson (Dr. Martin Harris), Diane Kruger (Gina), January Jones (Elizabeth Harris), Aidan Quinn (Martin B.), Bruno Ganz (Ernst J├╝rgen), Frank Langella (Rodney Cole), Sebastian Koch (Professor Bressler).

Alfred Hitchcock casts a large shadow over the thriller genre – one that is pretty much impossible to overcome. He was, without a doubt, one of the most influential filmmakers in history. And yet, what is odd about his films is that the work great – perhaps even better – when you know the secrets of the movie. I think I got more out of Notorious, Vertigo, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and the rest of his masterpieces the second time through then the first time. That is precisely why most thrillers today cannot measure up to the ones made by Hitchcock. They are all plot driven – they all try so damned hard to pull the rug out from under you with its twists and turns that none of them really create any real suspense, and none of them really make us care what happens to its characters. They are merely pawns in the director’s game.

Take the new thriller Unknown for example – a film that if you have read anything from the filmmakers or the cast, you will have heard Hitchcock’s name come up repeatedly. They are really trying very hard to emulate the master here. The problem is that the movie spends more time misdirecting us from its surprises than it does setting up its characters. The characters in Hitchcock movies were driven by some sort of deep psychological need or deviance – the characters in Unknown are simply driven by an overwritten screenplay.

The basic plot concerns Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) who travels to Berlin with his beautiful, much younger wife Elizabeth (January Jones). They arrive at the hotel, only to have Harris realize he left his briefcase at the airport. He gets into a cab driven by Gina (Diane Kruger) to go back – but gets into a traffic accident, and wakes up in the hospital four days later. What’s odd is that his wife never bothered to look for him – and when he returns to the hotel, and finds her at a party, she says she doesn’t know him – and introduces another man (Aidan Quinn) as her husband – Dr. Martin Harris. The “real” Harris tries to piece everything together, bringing Gina back into the fold to help him unravel what happened (why she agrees is a mystery the movie never bothers to explain), as well as an old Stasi officer named Jurgen (Bruno Ganz). He doesn’t like what he uncovers.

Neeson doesn’t have the right feel to him in this role. Hitchcock always cast actors he knew the audience would immediately like – Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, etc – so he wouldn’t have to make them likable. But Neeson isn’t one of those actors, and his hero is rather bland. Even worse is January Jones, who tries very hard to be the icy blonde that Hitchcock loved, but turns out just to be boring. Diane Kruger fares better – essentially taking on the Eva Marie Saint role from North by Northwest, but Saint had a reason to help Cary Grant, something this movie never supplies Kruger, so it leaves a hole in her character that she cannot file. The other truly great performance in the movie belongs to Bruno Ganz – that great German actor, who fills his role as the form Stasi agent to perfection. His scene with Frank Langella, another aging spy, is truly great, and belongs in another movie – one that deserves these two great talents, not this one.

It may seem unfair of me to spend so much time comparing this film to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. After all, Hitchcock was a master filmmaker – one of the best in history, and the director of this film, Jaume Collet-Serra is just starting out (although his last film, Orphan, truly was a wonderful Hitchcockian thriller about an evil little girl). But when a movie tries as hard as unknown does to be a Hitchcock thriller – and comes up so short, I don’t know how else to review the film. The filmmakers made the comparison first – and I’m just pointing out just how short of their aims this movie falls.

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