So, for the Winter Solstice Consumerfest, one of the daughters gave me a subscription to Lovefilm. So I’ve been finally enjoying some of the decent films that I’ve missed in recent years.
But of course, not all of them have been good; the stinker so far has to be Unknown. I wasn’t expecting it to be bad – it stars Liam Neeson (one of my favourite actors) and the basic plot outline is promising. Dr. Martin Harris, a US biotechnology scientist, and his wife Liz travel to Germany for a big science conference; about to check into a hotel, he realises that he’s left his briefcase at the airport, grabs a taxi back there; the taxi is involved in an accident; the scientist wakes up days later in hospital and slowly discovers that his entire identity has been taken over by another man; even his wife, when he confronts her, denies knowing him. Although adapted from a German novel, its premise of shifting identities and unreliable memories sounds very Phillip K Dick. So I had high hopes for it.
The first half-hour, when Harris is discovering that he may not be who he thinks he is, is fine. After that, it starts turning into a pretty stupid action thriller, complete with car chases, gunfights, ginormous explosions and equally ginormous plot holes. Even more ginormous spoilers follow, so I’ve put the rest of the post here:
It turns out that Harris and his wife (played by a seriously underused January Jones) are actually members of a super-secret elite assassination squad; their task is to bump off Somebody Important attending the conference and also steal some information from a laptop at the same time. In a plan that a Bond villain would consider over-elaborate, they’ve spent a full year establishing cover identities, just so that they can get into the conference hotel and do their thing there. Which somehow involves a bomb previously planted in the hotel.
Now, those who aren’t Bond villains might well consider that a rooftop sniper and a good computer hacker could do all of the required assassination and data-stealing, with no need for cover identities and bombs. But that wouldn’t make for car chases, ginourmous explosions and fist-fights.
The unexpected accident has made Neesom’s character lose his memory and believe he really is a harmless biotechnology scientist. While he’s been in hospital he’s been hastily replaced by another member of the elite squad, which appear to have made no effort to find him. And when he turns up, instead of taking him aside and gently explaining the situation, they simply decide to eliminate him. Yes, that’s the way to build up team loyalty, chaps.
More credulity-straining follows. Harris/Whoever finds the taxi-driver – who turns out to be an illegal immigrant (which is an obvious cover identity, since she looks like an 18-year old blonde US film star with 24-hour access to a high-end beauty salon) – and hides out in her flat. While she’s out taxi-driving and getting her daily hairdo and manicure, Harris/Whoever takes a bath; while he’s soaping himself, the two Bad Guys intent on killing him burst into the flat (having shot dead an innocent bystander for no reason on their way up the stairs – way to make yourselves inconspicuous, chaps!). In the 30 seconds that it takes the Bad Guys to find the bathroom, Harris/Whoever has divined who they are, got out of the bath, dried himself off, slipped on some clothes and climbed out of the window into the snowy winter night. After ten minutes or so of faffing about, damp and lightly-clothed, in snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures he gets back into the flat; showing no signs whatsoever of hypothermia, he takes on both the Bad Guys and vanquishes them.
But that isn’t the end of the eye-rolling. Somehow, he finds an elderly ex-Stasi agent who is now scraping a living as a private eye and gets him interested enough to help. Using this character properly would have improved the film considerably; Old Stasi Guy could have used his knowledge, contacts and wiles to help Harris/Whoever crack the big mystery. But for some unfathomable reason that never happens.
For example, Harris/Whoever’s only clue to his real identity is an old botany textbook with some numbers written on the flyleaf; it’s obviously a code of some kind. So when he shows it to Old Stasi Guy you fully expect OSG to study it intently and pronounce “Yes, I do believe this is a code they taught us in Stasi School…”. But instead he merely looks at it, shrugs, agrees that it probably is a code, says he doesn’t have the foggiest and hands it back. What makes this scene even more idiotic is that the numbers turn out to be a simple book cipher referring to pages, lines and words in the book; something that any spy would know about.
OSG has a scene later with the head of the elite assassination squad; Elite Squad Head turns out to be an Old CIA Guy; they reminisce fondly about old times; OSG drinks cyanide in front of ESH and expires; ESH looks a bit miffed and leaves. And that’s it – a whole half-hour of screen time pretty much wasted in terms of moving the plot forward.
Anyway, Harris/Whoever gets his memory back just in time to kill ESH (in an exploding car, naturally) and thwart the assassination plot, though not in time to stop the bomb going off in a very impressive CGI blast; his “wife”, having unaccountably turned from a cool and competent operative into a stereotypical clumsy woman, gets herself killed trying to defuse the bomb; in the smoking ruins of the hotel Harris/Whoever kills the remaining Bad Guy in a 10-minute stand-up fight, after which he cops off with the glamorous young taxi-driver. The End.
Honestly, what a waste….