Friday, February 25, 2011

B Movie, For "Bourne"

In "Unknown," Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) thinks his identity has been stolen. "Unknown" is stolen by a charming pixie of a former agent of the East German Stasi, Ernst Jurgen, played by veteran German actor Bruno Ganz. Jurgen is working as a private investigator in Berlin. The movie meanders a bit until he and Harris meet, whereupon Jurgen livens things up by asking the same plotting questions we've been asking. "It used to be what I was known for," he says with a smile. "The details."

Harris, an American academic, and his icy wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), had arrived four days before for a biotech conference. On his way back to the airport to retrieve his briefcase, his taxi accidentally plunges into a river. By the time he recovers, Elizabeth has hooked up with another Martin Harris back at the conference, and they pretend they've never seen him before.

Once you know the whole story, you'll think again about the off-key interactions between Martin and Elizabeth in the first five carefully constructed minutes. This will tax your memory. The accident taxes (and alters) Harris's. I even forgot, at least for two hours, the unlikeliness of a sympathetic Stasi agent. "We all forget," says Jurgen. "We forgot the Nazis, and now we're forgetting 40 years of communism."

Director Jaume Collet-Serra obviously hasn't forgotten the Bourne movies, on whose conventions "Unknown" relies especially for its fight and chase scenes as well blurry flashbacks of prior capers. Harris's alliance with the taxi driver who saves his life, played by Diane Kruger, operates the same way as Matt Damon's with his costar, Franka Potente, in the first of the epic trilogy.

Overall the movie's too Bourne-again for five stars. It falls apart at the end when a villain insists on trying to disarm a bomb so the explosion won't implicate her and then knocks a conspicuous hole in a hotel suite wall to get at it. It's implied that boring old agribusiness, not ideology, is behind all the bloody mayhem. In a startling scene where Jurgen and an American counterpart (not Nixon, but he played him in the movies) enfold one another in what is simultaneously a death grip and friendly hug, we're reminded again that the Cold War is long gone and yet sometimes, at least by storytellers, lamented.

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