***/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras D
starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Frank Langella
screenplay by Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell, based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier van Cauwelaert
directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
by Ian Pugh Knight and Day, Salt, and The Tourist failed as '60s spy throwbacks because they constantly reassured you that everything would be all right; if there was something about their various intrigues we didn't quite understand (or weren't supposed to know before some big third-act twist), we could rest assured that someone was pulling the strings to keep the world from falling apart. Unknown finally removes that safety net, and from there it approaches the fear and uncertainty that so fascinated Alfred Hitchcock and Terence Young about the Cold War--this sinking feeling that whatever conspiracies may be driving the plot, there will never be a way to extricate yourself from their tangled webs. True, Unknown's primary attraction is the dissection of identity, and it's simply incapable of stunning you in the same way that the Bourne trilogy stunned you with its own methodical examinations of the self. (If the picture feels derivative of that series, that's because it is.) But at the end, you're left feeling uncomfortable, because you just know you haven't uncovered all its secrets yet.
A few short minutes after arriving in Berlin for a biotechnology conference, American scientist Martin Harris (a haunted Liam Neeson) is forced to take a taxicab back to the airport to retrieve a lost briefcase. He wakes up in hospital several days later, where he's told that he suffered a severe head injury in a car accident. Unfortunately, Martin has no identification, and he can't precisely recall vital details about his personal life. Those are the two things he really needs right now, because when he stumbles back to his hotel, his wife Liz (January Jones) suddenly claims not to know him, while another man (Aidan Quinn) alleged to be "Martin Harris" has taken his place. With apparently contradictory flashbacks to an idyllic domestic life as his only clues, Martin's not entirely sure how much of his past is a mental fabrication. The assassins stalking him certainly point to something sinister--and in his quest for answers, he unintentionally implicates Gina (Diane Kruger), the Bosnian taxi driver who set everything in motion by driving him off that bridge.
Though the action sequences are serviceable in and of themselves, their real attraction is how they contribute to the seed of doubt that drives the protagonist's mission. Martin is trying to escape from a number of assailants, so it's only natural to expect a few car chases--but why is it that nearly all of them involve taxis? It serves as a convenient symbol for the stranger in a strange land (a symbol that applies to both the presumptuous American and illegal immigrant Gina), but the reappearance of nearly-identical vehicles can't possibly be incidental. Because Martin is forced to relive his traumatic experiences over and over again in the context of a paranoid assassination plot, that sense of repetition gives the impression that this has happened many times before. Similarly, there's something imperceptibly off about Martin's relationship with the women in this movie. He regards Gina with a familiar eye, as if she were an extension of Liz's personality. Much like Vertigo's Scottie, he's looking to replace a life that may not have existed in the first place; how many times, we wonder, has he played through this obsessive scenario in fantasy and reality alike? Even Martin's German accomplices--the kindly doctor (Karl Markovics) who treats his injuries and the sympathetic investigator (Bruno Ganz) who helps uncover his identity--seem to represent different iterations of the same character, drifting through different lives. It's like we're witnessing two versions of the same quest, occurring simultaneously.
At the centre of the film lies its unfriendly version of Berlin, a self-contained world of bitter memories and unknowable guilt. Ganz's investigator, a former member of the Stasi, delivers an important line about how Germany tries hard to forget its history of Nazism and communism, and it's at that moment that Unknown's intentions become clear. The question is not what Martin has done to warrant the killers' attention, but what, if anything, he can do move on with his life, such as it is. Whatever new identity he may claim, there's no way to escape the wrath of "mysterious strangers" like Rodney Cole (Frank Langella, chilling as always); whatever alliances he may form with outsiders, he represents too great a danger to them to be indulged for long. It's from this perspective that Unknown captures the essence of the Cold War as a perpetual cycle of conflict and détente. The effects still linger. The real tragedy here is that there's nothing to prevent these characters from reliving a similar series of events at some point in the future. Originally published: February 18, 2011.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers At this point, there's a baseline impressiveness to Blu-ray transfers, but even to these jaded eyes, Unknown looks great on the format. The 2.40:1, 1080p image is sharp, rich, tactile; in a moment where Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger enter a darkened apartment, you can discern the wallpaper pattern before anybody turns on the lights. January Jones's creamy, edible skin more than makes up for the typical doll-eyed opaqueness of her performance, while there's a transparency to the film's teal tint that keeps it from feeling oppressive and helps it sidestep cliché. A surprisingly uniform, consistent, and supple coat of grain--the picture was shot on a combination of 16mm, 35mm, and 65mm stocks--ties it all together, bringing the big-screen experience home. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is similarly stunning, translating a handful of showcase action sequences so that pinprick details are not smothered by the general cacophony. Panning effects are notable for their fluidity.
One last thing about the presentation: subtitles for the German-language dialogue are non-removable and appear within the frameline as they did in theatres. (I personally prefer this, because player-generated captions cheapen the experience.) Rounding out the Warner platter are two vacuous promotional featurettes, one a Liam Neeson love-in ("Liam Neeson: Known Action Hero" (5 mins., HD)), the other an ostensible making-of ("Unknown: What is Known?" (4 mins., HD)) that recycles most of the soundbites from the previous piece! A HiDef trailer for Green Lantern cues up before the main menu; a Digital Copy of Unknown is included on a DVD inside the keepcase. Originally published: June 27, 2011.