It would take a pretty great film to get anything genuinely surprising out of a story where one day the protagonist discovers the world is convinced he doesn't exist, given how many spins on this idea we've seen in recent years. Jaume Collet-Sera's Unknown
that film. Good, but not great
is clearly much less concerned with building up any atmosphere of actual mystery than it is with getting to the good stuff, viz. car chases, explosions and Liam Neeson punching people. To be fair, the good stuff does hinge on a reasonable Big Reveal by Hollywood standards, and the whole thing is very well made, if a bit too cold and workmanlike to ever really transport you. Of course there's a conspiracy. Of course
that supporting character's going to die. But if a machine-tooled popcorn thriller is what you're after, Unknown
delivers with sufficient style to see you through more than a few beered-up Friday evenings. It just doesn't hold up so well in the cold light of day.
Neeson plays biochemist Martin Harris, making his first visit to Berlin with his pretty young wife Liz (January Jones, XMen First Class
, TV's Mad Men
) for a prestigious scientific conference. Hurrying out of the airport, he accidentally leaves his briefcase behind on the baggage cart. When he sets off to pick it up, a freak accident sends his taxi off the road and into the river. Only the driver's intervention (Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds
) saves Brian's life, but when he wakes in hospital he finds something's gone terribly wrong. All his possessions are either at the bottom of the river or locked away in his hotel room, but no-one seems to accept Brian is who he says he is - there's another man romancing his wife with all the proper ID to back up his claim to be the real Martin Harris, and both say they don't know him. Is there some sinister conspiracy going on, or is poor Liam Neeson slowly going insane?
Again, it's really not spoiling anything to confirm of course
there's a conspiracy (the trailer does more or less give that away). Though to give Sera some credit Unknown's plot - while not wholly original - is a) probably not quite what most of you are thinking, and b) gets treated with just enough respect the fanciful Hollywood parts don't come off as too ridiculous. Unsurprisingly it doesn't stand up to serious scrutiny but despite featuring all manner of pulpy genre tropes Unknown
is far, far less nonsensical than the convoluted twists and turns of something like Flight Plan
. Neeson has the reluctant warrior schtick down to a relatively fine art by this point, comfortable with his status as the older generation's action hero du jour, and lends many of the sillier moments a fair degree of pathos. If you follow mainstream blockbusters or read many airport thrillers you'll usually know, or have a fair idea what's coming next (the plot is loosely based on an existing novel), but it's efficient, often genuinely gripping stuff regardless.
The main problem is whatever does turn up, none of it proves that gripping beyond the basic ingrained response so many of us have had hard-wired through watching more films of this sort than is probably healthy. Neeson is perfectly watchable as a stranger in a strange land, and Diane Kruger does a decent job as his angel of mercy (January Jones doesn't make much of an impression, though she's landed with a fairly nothing part). But nothing's ever really in doubt, however many minor details might trip you up along the way. Very little about Sera's direction stands out, either - he seems barely more interested in the plot than the writers, never indulging in anything beyond the absolute bare minimum required to ground the characters. There's virtually nothing to distract you from thinking 'Okay, this is the car chase; this is the fist-fight, and this is the cat-and-mouse sequence' and on and on until the credits roll.Unknown
is definitely fun; both cast and crew display enough professionalism and attention to detail that anyone who can suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours should walk away happy. But there's very little evidence anyone involved was putting any real emotion into the film. DP Flavio Martinez Labiano goes for too many weirdly intimate frames, shoots Berlin in muted blues and grays that feel more nondescript than minimalist, and bar the climax (which does actually manage some real impact) the action sequences don't leave much impression either. The score wanders in one ear and out the other. While it's in full flow, Unknown
does satiate your subconscious appetites effectively enough - tension! Chases! Brutal violence! - but it simply doesn't make enough of its aspirations towards being an intelligent thriller for much of this to register after you've turned it off. It doesn't do enough to hide that it's a product, or to really stand out from the countless other films along the same lines. If you want an entertaining diversion on a lazy Friday evening, by all means give Unknown
a shot - but if you're more in the mood to think about what you're watching it only comes cautiously recommended.THE DISC
Optimum Home Entertainment's UK BluRay of Unknown - available to buy from 18th July - is pleasing but functional, much like the film itself. The disc starts off with a few trailers for forthcoming releases - The Losers
, The Tourist
, yet another
Snickers advert, Source Code
and Animal Kingdom
, all of which can be skipped, though only one by one. Menus are serviceable, with random clips from the film that don't look anything special but at least give little or nothing away, and they're clear and easy to navigate. The film is divided into twelve chapter stops.
The basic 2.0 stereo track (5.1 DTS-HD is also available) is perfectly serviceable, clear and consistent with no distortion, though Unknown's set pieces shouldn't pose too much of a challenge to anyone's speakers and everyone speaks loudly enough to be heard. Unlike some of Optimum's bare-bones releases in the past this one does have English subtitles - they're legible, well-written and more or less free from errors, though those for the lines of German dialogue are not removable. (And it feels odd they actually indicate what track is playing in a club scene, though perhaps that's just me.)
The picture is again not great - noticeably a BluRay rather than a DVD, but lacking the definition you'd maybe hope for. Unknown
uses a pretty soft, muted colour palette, a fair amount of grain and acid-washed filters for flashback scenes, so it's hard to judge precisely what is intentional and what isn't, but blacks seem a bit too indistinct and there's not really anything that pops off the screen. It's a decent transfer, but not demo material.
Extras are strictly fluff - largely electronic press kit footage chopped up and repurposed, a parade of cast and crew members singing the film's praises, talking about how fantastic it is and how working on it was heaven on earth. There's a feature for the story, one for a quick look behind the scenes, and one canonising Liam Neeson. All of these are around four minutes long, obviously use the same interviews (some even repeat the same lines over and over) and - be warned - the introduction to each potentially gives away the film's Big Reveal.
There are also six further interviews with the three principal actors, the director and producers. These are slightly more in-depth, though still largely soft-ball questions (What did you find interesting about this film? Etc.) not worth watching more than once. Last is the trailer, which does a reasonable job selling the film, though again potentially explains a little too much of what's going on.Unknown
is a slick, efficient film of the kind that tends to get unfairly passed over or dismissed - a tight, professional action flick with a talented cast that at least pretends to have a brain and doesn't pander outright is something people really don't credit enough. But it's very much a known quantity, using a plot we've seen before, far too interested in getting to the popcorn thrills rather than developing its characters and ultimately nothing like as clever as it wants to think. Still, if you're after two hours of undemanding excitement that's elegantly put together and doesn't talk down to you, Optimum Home Entertainment's UK BluRay gives Unknown
a solid, if undistinguished bare-bones presentation that should prove satisfying enough.(Thanks go to Optimum Home Entertainment and ThinkJam for facilitating this review.)