It’s a Wunderbar Life
(Unknown, Jaume Collet-Serra, US, UK, Ger, Fr, Japan, Canada, 2011, 113 mins)
[Warning: This review reveals key plot points]
Unknown belongs to the ‘American in peril abroad’ tradition, following the likes of Polanski’s Frantic and indeed Neeson’s Parisian actioner, Taken, in which the audience’s lack of familiarity with the Euro-locale and its otherworldly inhabitants, lends foreboding to their national’s quest. If 63% of Americans don’t hold passports, movies like these may be part of the reason.
Set in the unknowable future of November 2011, the story concerns Neeson and his beautiful but mannequin wife, January Jones, flying into Berlin for a conference on agri-science. Neeson’s Doctor Martin Harris, whose title, in an irritating quirk, is restated every two minutes, to the point where I prayed that someone would refer to him as Mr Harris, just to see him explode, leaves an important bag at the airport and upon returning to reclaim it, is involved in a car accident in which his taxi plummets into a river (though the meter’s still running). When he awakes four days later his identity has been assumed by another man, his wife claims not to know him and his only hope of solving the mystery seems to be the cabby that fled the scene and an ex-Stasi agent turned investigator, played with a touch of the John Le Carre by a craggy faced Bruno Ganz.
There’s a little too much gloss to this thriller, where a lack of style might have given an edge and some urgency to familiar material. You can cope with those dreaded point of view shots, complete with sleepy eyelids and quick shifts in focus, but attempts at representing Neeson’s occasional ejaculations of memory are more jolting. Perhaps your mind if so suffused with film grammar that your reveries are punctuated by rapid edits, sound effects, white frames and depending on how easy the setup may have been for the camera crew in your head, a shift between images seen through your own eyes and those from a fixed third person perspective. Also, do you experience that thing, where your memories are tinted green or orange, you know, as through someone had applied a colour filter to that part of your brain? Well, perhaps Neeson isn’t like the rest of us.
When Doctor Martin Harris, that’s Doctor Martin Harris, isn’t dreaming like a post-production suite, his journey around Berlin is fairly engaging. Long before the denouement, in which Verhoeven’s Total Recall is recalled by the film’s screenwriters, though sadly without the ultraviolence, it’s clear that the A story is less captivating than the B, namely the efforts of former communist agent Ganz to uncover the truth while Neeson tours Germania’s museums and hotels.
The pivotal scene in the picture and undoubtedly its best, is a taste of another movie altogether – cinema’s long awaited face off between Adolf Hitler and Skeletor. Ganz has been visited by Frank Langella’s University Professor, a long time colleague of Neeson’s. Long after Ganz’s wizened agent has realised it, we wake up to the fact that we’re witnessing a conflict between two cold war veterans. It’s a beautifully written scene that effortless segues from polite small talk to deadly discourse. It hints at a mutual respect between the characters, giving us a glimpse of Ganz’s past and his still sharp instincts and importantly, with regards to the rest of the picture, alludes to a backstory that both characters are aware of but we are not.
How perfunctory and one dimensional the rest of the film feels by comparison with this moment. In a bloodless scene between two old men, there’s more pathos and tension, not least in little touches like Langella slowly unbuttoning his jacket as Ganz stiffens, than in any of the hyper-kinetic fight scenes or car chases that pad out the rest of the running time. If the filmmakers had been minded to make this a full-blooded cold war thriller, with an aesthetic to match, rather than tipping their hat to one, you feel this could have been wonderful. Instead it’s simply diverting.