Unknown (2011)


Philip K. Dick has been posthumously influencing sci-fi for the past thirty years now, especially in the cinema. Need proof? Just look at this year’s slew of high-profile mind-benders. The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011) is based on a short story by Dick, simply titled ‘Adjustment Team‘.  But then we also have Limitless (Neil Burger, 2011), about a brain-enhancing super drug and the labyrinth conspiracy surrounding its development. Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011) was about a universe-traversing time machine which allowed a soldier to inhabit the body of another man for eight minutes, in order to solve the mystery of who bombed a train. They both sound like works the famous author would have imagineered in the 70’s, but neither more so than Unknown, which in basic setup – a man wakes up to discover that nobody recognizes him and he has no record of identification in the outside world – recalls Dick’s 1974 novel ‘Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said‘, which I admit was a much more complex dystopic thriller, and the progression of that setup is wildly different. Unknown is actually credited as an adaptation of the French 2003 novel ‘Out Of My Head‘, but I also detected traces of Polanski’s Frantic (1988) and the Bourne trilogy, based on the novels by Robert Ludlum. Yes film fans, there’s a deep genre heritage in the patchwork of Unknown, which is a surprisingly engaging little thriller; taut and packed with action, if more than a little silly…

The basic plot finds Liam Neeson playing Dr. Martin Harris, who is visiting Berlin for a biotechnology conference (yeah, right!). He leaves his wife (January Jones, who couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag) at their hotel and sets out to retrieve a bag left at the airport, but his taxi, driven by Diane Kruger, is involved in an accident which sends Harris into a four-day coma. When he wakes up nobody – not even his wife – recognizes him, and a new Martin Harris seems to have taken his place. A mystery unfurls as shady types begin chasing Harris through subway stations, and the puzzled Doctor recruits a man named Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), whose profession is never fully explained, to try and track down those who have wronged him. So yeah, it’s complete brain fluff, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’ll work out the plot in five minutes but the unexpected joy of Unknown – which is receiving unfair comparisons with Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008), purely for the sake of marketing – is in watching the story unfurl in increasingly OTT ways, and it leads to a number of thrilling set-pieces.

Neeson is clearly enjoying his latter-day stint as an action icon, recently employed in the equally enjoyable A-Team (Joe Carnahan, 2010), and here he gets to work his acting chops too – which isn’t to say there’s any meaty dialogue, but he does explore a smorgasbord of visual emotions including confusion, anger and moodiness. The veteran actor holds everything together and remains magnetically watchable. By the time he’s developed three days worth of stubble and a leather jacket to match (why do all unstable movie heroes look like this?) you’ll be counting down the minutes until he gets to unleash all manner of hell on the governmental types who stole his identity, and the final fist fight – while brief – won’t disappoint. Neeson may not be stretching himself these days but I’m glad we have him in this sort of material, because he really raises the bar. Ganz is also excellent in support, and Frank Langella chews through the scenery towards the films end, which is always fun.

The aesthetic is also surprising. There’s a brooding intensity to the shadowy corridors, dank business districts and neon lit nightclubs of Berlin, all of which create an enhanced sensory atmosphere. DP Flavio Labiano really didn’t need to work this hard, but the fact that he did makes Unknown stand out from the crowd – visually, it’s an excellent piece of work, and effectively bleak in places. But face it: we’re all here for the action. I like that the film takes time to build up an engaging mystery and form a bond with our lead character, but it really kicks into gear with a halfway-point car chase that ramps up the adrenaline and doesn’t let off until that final fist-fight. “I didn’t forget everything” growls Harris. He really didn’t, we think, as pipes smash faces and the 12 rating is pushed to its bloody limits. I’m glad for that fact too, because it makes Unknown a rampantly enjoyable ride. Turn off your brain and dim the lights – your popcorn won’t be wasted.

The Disc/Extras

The DVD looks brilliant, actually, so I can only imagine how great the Blu-Ray is; I recommend the highest resolution possible for this one because the visuals really enhance the depth of feeling. 5.1 Surround Sound is also employed well here, and you feel every crunch in the action sequences.

Some brief featurettes comprise the extras, but they’re all lightweight and sadly throwaway. There’s even a feature called ‘Unknown: The Story‘, which literally details every aspect of the plot, which is unimaginably pointless and condescending if you’re watching it after the film, and spoiler-laden if you’re watching it before. There’s also some behind the scenes stuff and interviews, but nothing substantial. Disappointing.

Unknown is out on DVD and blu-ray 18th July 2011.

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Stars: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones
Runtime: 113 min
Country: UK, Germany, France, Canada, Japan, USA

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

Disc Rating: ★★½☆☆

  1. Kevin Matthews says

    I watched this one just the other day and really didn’t care for it all that much. It was perhaps just above average IMO. Just.

  2. Robin Yacoubian says

    I agree. For some reason (maybe from the poster design alone) I was expecting something more along the lines of Taken, which I really enjoyed. But this was as you say just plain average. Great review though Mike.

  3. Patrick Gamble says

    On the topic of Philip K. Dick I heard a rumour Ridley Scott was penning a tv version of ‘Man in the high castle’ – which would be amazing. I apologise for sullying your comments with something only mildly relevant to your opening gambit.

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