Jaume Collet-Serra, whose last film was the promising but ultimately underwhelming “creepy-kid” horror film Orphan, returns with a silly, overwrought action movie dressed up as, variously, a psychological study of (memory) loss, an espionage thriller about identity theft, and a romantic-caper film in the vein of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. The film is an adaptation of a novella by French author Didier van Cauwelaert called Hors de Moi (Out of My Head), of which Sophie Harrison wrote, in her NYTBR review, “This is a novel that really, really wants to be a movie. There are a lot of hurried conversations on cellphones, and a lot of jumping in and out of taxis.” Collet-Serra’s film certainly lives up to Harrison’s opinion of the novel.
Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, an American academic botanist in Berlin to give a paper at a biotechnology conference. The conference is attended by a number of international dignitaries, including the Saudi royal prince, and it is expected to be the platform for the unveiling of a new type of corn which will be given away free of charge (and without patent or copyright) to the third world in an attempt to bring an end to world hunger. Neeson’s biotechxpert gets to his hotel and realises he’s left a briefcase (with his passport and all other ID inside) at the airport. Leaving his wife (played by Mad Men’s January Jones) at the hotel to check in, he jumps in a cab driven by a Bosnian woman—played, erroneously, by the brilliant German actress Diane Kruger. On the way back to the airport she swerves to avoid a truck, and drives off a bridge into a river. He suffers a knock to the head and is unconscious; she saves him and, after four days in a coma, he wakes up in hospital with mild amnesia. He knows his name, but not why he’s in Berlin (not initially, anyway) or what he was doing when the taxi plunged into the freezing water.
His wife doesn’t recognise him, and, worse, not only is she convinced she’s never met him, but she’s shacked up with an impersonator calling himself the ‘real’ Martin Harris. Because Neeson’s Martin has no ID, the amnesiac can’t prove to the doctors and officials that he’s who he thinks he is. He’s detained in the hospital under suspicion of mental instability, but quickly breaks out. He suffers various delusions and is continually plagued by nightmarish over-saturated Hipstamatic/CSI-style flashbacks, the most egregious of which is a totally unnecessary shower-sex scene between the 59-year old Neeson and 33-year-old Jones.
Enlisting the help of Kruger’s Bosnian taxi driver, whom he discovers is an illegal alien, Neeson’s Harris tries to untangle the web of lies and deceit that surrounds the installation of the ersatz “him.” The rest of the film plays out like an action thriller with a minor espionage element—and a dollop of political subtext slotted in at the last minute. The self-seriousness and commitment to style of its first half means the film opens strongly, but any pretence of this being a thoughtful piece of cinema goes out the window when Collet-Serra opts for sub-Michael Bay level theatrics as the plot becomes increasingly filled with set-pieces seemingly cut-and-paste from a generic action-movie rulebook: chase scenes, explosions, hand-to-hand combat, and shootouts in vacant parking buildings.
While Kruger is very good, if hideously miscast as an Eastern European, Jones (who bears a striking resemblance to Claire Danes) couldn’t act her way out of a cardboard box—which is perhaps why she’s so good as the ditzy, bobble-headed Betty Draper? The supporting cast, includes the wonderful Bruno Ganz, Sebastian Koch and Frank Langella, each of whom is better than all three main players combined. It’s perplexing why Neeson—who here reprises his clueless free agent/spy role from Taken—is continually cast as an American: sure, his Irish accent is no longer as strong as it used to be, but he certainly doesn’t sound American. Aside from some pleasingly Der Himmel über Berlin-esque establishing shots of the city, the cinematography and camerawork is an unremarkable mix of blue-green filters and fast-paced action-movie cutting. The film admittedly handles its hilariously preposterous twist well, but the shabbiness of almost every other aspect up til that point makes it a fairly tedious slog.
Unknown is in cinemas now.
This review cross-posted at The Corner.