Things I Learned From Movie X: Unknown
By Edwin Davies
March 8, 2012
If you’re anything like me – and, since I sometimes have trouble imagining that anyone other than me reads these things, I have to assume that you are very like me – then you were probably very surprised by Liam Neeson’s reinvention as the modern day Charles Bronson that, in all honestly, no one really wanted until they got him. There were early signs that Neeson could do more than just act stoic and Irish when he appeared Star Wars: The Phantom Menace as Qui-Gon Jinn, the only vaguely likable character in the entire prequel trilogy, and as is only befitting George Lucas’ complete inability to understand what exactly it is that people like about Star Wars, one of the first casualties of those films. (The other early casualties being, of course, the childhood dreams of everyone who watched The Phantom Menace.) Yet the move from stoic, non-Irish Jedi to non-stoic, slightly Irish badass in Taken was a real lateral move for the actor which paid off surprisingly well.
As surprising as his sudden change in career may have been, it was nothing compared to how quickly Neeson went from starring in high-quality crap like Taken to middling, barely straight-to-DVD quality fare like Unknown, in which he plays a world renowned botanist who gets involved in a car crash whilst in Berlin for a conference, then wakes up to discover that no one seems to know who he is and he has no proof that he is who he says he is, either. With the help of the cab driver who first endangered then saved his life (played by the ever delightful Diane Kruger) and a former Stasi agent turned detective (played by Bruno Ganz who, thanks to YouTube, now has the dubious honour of having supplanted the actual Hitler in the popular consciousness), he starts to piece together the puzzle and discovers that he is a character in a film that is not very good. Yet just as new life can rise from manure, so can important lessons rise from the fertile loam of a bad film. Observe...
Isn’t Berlin a nice looking city?
You know that a film is in trouble when the shots of the city it is set in are more interesting than the plot, but Unknown falls into that particular trap by being set in Berlin, which looks just lovely all covered in snow, albeit in a really bleak way. (Then again, the plot of the film is so uninvolving that the film could have been set in Branson, Missouri and the backdrop would have still been more interesting.)
The setting also allows the film to indulge in some delightfully subtle racial stereotyping, which I always find interesting since seeing how close a film can get to being racist without actually being racist is a fun, if weird, game to play. In this instance, the film depicts all Germans as fastidious followers of protocol who are completely humourless, and who spend all their time either getting in the way of the forthright Dr Martin Harris, trusting Google search results over the pleas of a real human being. The only ones who don’t seem to be slaves to their programming are the fun loving Euro-trash types that Martin encounters when he and Gina (Kruger) hide out in an underground club to escape from the mysterious agents who seem intent on killing them. It was here that I hoped that the film would take a strange detour, and that the strains of New Order’s Blue Monday would cause Martin to discover a hitherto unknown love of dance music, at which point he would forget about the men trying to kill him and throw shapes in the house of dance to his heart’s content. Sadly, it was not to be, and the film soon returns to the business of guns, car chases and talk of plants. Oh, how I mourn for the film that may have been, of a man in his 50s who finally discovers that what has really been missing from his life was MDMA and a beat.