It’s so great to see a movie start out so strongly and well. We are introduced to Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his blonde wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), traveling together to Berlin where Harris is attending a conference on botany and world hunger. He loses his very important briefcase containing his passport and other items at the airport and has to jump in a cab from the hotel where Elizabeth is checking in. Thus they get separated, Harris becomes a victim in a car crash, falling off a bridge into a river, appearing to drown. All of this is a set-up for the rest of the film, and it is all directed (Jaume Collet-Serra), photographed (Flavio LaBiano) and edited (Tim Alverson) with Alfred Hitchcock-like aplomb. Everything is clear and detailed and demands our attention. The earlier trip in another taxi from the airport to the hotel lets us actually experience what that would feel like and see what we would actually see if we were in Berlin on a snowy day. The terrible car crash and the underwater scenes with Harris struggling to try to save himself make us suffer with him. Of course, a knock on his head makes the situation even more devastating.
He does eventually wake up in a German hospital, and his intense effort to find his wife and his own identity (since he has lost all his papers) becomes a fearsome journey as things go from bad to worse. The building of suspense here is a wonderful reminder of Hitchcock who has been a very hard act to follow. He was able to draw us immediately into a movie, hold our attention, invite us to participate in the action, and do it with agonizing suspense, elegance and charm all at the same time. Mr. Neeson would have been a good Hitchcock actor, had he had that opportunity. For here at the outset of “Unknown” we care about Dr. Harris and the mystery he’s spiraling into.
Unfortunately, the movie suddenly takes a turn into action-packed violence, car chases, and fast-paced story-telling that is hard to follow. Everything is quickly tied up at the end, but unbelievably so.
It is worthwhile to mention Diane Kruger as Gina, Harris’s cab driver and new friend along the way, a Bosnian young woman who would do almost anything to leave the country. We’ve certainly seen this type of character before, but Ms. Kruger does bring a freshness and believability to the part. She and Mr. Neeson pair up well together.
However, part of the overall problem may lie in the fact that producers no longer trust a seemingly self-generating story. Or, put another way, Hollywood producers no longer want to bank on a thriller project dependent on a cohesive, evolving storyline. In the old days, for instance, audiences were able to watch Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and relate to the plight of Cary Grant’s character as he is unwittingly swept away from his normal, everyday stint as a Madison Avenue ad executive. Then mistaken for someone named George Kaplan, whisked away, chased, always in harm’s way, seemingly rescued by Eva Marie Saint only to discover that she’s in cahoots with James Mason and his evil minions. Then later, to learn that there is no George Kaplan, Eva Marie Saint is really a double agent working for the C.I.A., and so forth. The point being that Hitchcock and his producers counted on the audience to follow the story arc all the way through, believing in some underlying logic that would eventually reveal itself. Granted it wasn’t entirely credible, there was no way Cary Grant was really going to suffer, have to slug it out or anything close. But there was ample time to get to know Eva Marie Saint on a train ride, time to fall for her, time to let her know what he thought of her apparent machinations, and then time to get back together again.
Here there is no time. Whatever relationship may be developing between Harris and Gina is the byproduct of constant fleeing, stalking, head bashing, racing around and furtive glances over the shoulder. There is no time to allow Neeson to develop a character or a relationship with anyone. He says he’s a botanist but that’s only a link to the impending convention. He tries to get into contact with Frank Langella, a colleague who allegedly can support his story and true identity, but there’s no time to establish, let alone rekindle their long-time connection in-between more violence and bashing. Then there is Elizabeth, Neeson’s wife who seems to have no function except to appear from time to time vacillating from being slightly affectionate, standoffish and utter the line “I love you” before dashing off.
Needless to say, it seems to follow that the more mindless the latter part of the movie becomes, the less the audience has to invest. And the less the audience has to invest, the only thing left to do is glance at the special effects, tune in or tune out the mayhem, and offhandedly accept or put the resolution to all the plot twists and sub-plots out of your mind.
Again, time was when you could actually phrase a compelling question that would hold your continuing engagement. A question like, How will Cary Grant ever get out of this predicament and regain his identity or is it much too late? Ah, for those good old days.