Unknown: Political Thriller, Starring Liam Neeson, Frank Langella, and Bruno Gantz

The new political thriller, “Unknown,” boasts an intriguing promise and a superlative cast, headed by Liam Neeson, Frank Langella, and Bruno Gantz.

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“Unknown” represents an honorable but not satisfying effort to reenergize a cherished subgenre by updating its prototypical themes and characters.

Centering on a man whose identity had been lost (or stolen), to say the least, “Unknown” tries to blend conventions of Hitchcockian psychological thrillers with those of the political melodramas that John Frankenheimer and others directed in the 1960s and 1970s.

The end result is a compromised movie, one in which the parts are better than the whole sum.  Which is another way of saying that “Unknown” lacks the narrative clarity and dramatic coherence of either Hitchcock or Frankenheimer.

It’s too bad, because the talented Neeson makes a valiant effort to hold the twisty and shaky text on his broad shoulders, and also because the first real is engaging, raising expectations for an involving, edge-of-your-seat political thriller, which ultimately the picture, which gets progressively worse, does not fulfill.

Based on the French novel by Didier van Cauwelaert  (which I have not read), “Unknown” aims to explore the fluid nature of postmodern identity.  Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a man who had lost his identity in a car accident and goes through an ordeal, racing through the dark and cold streets of Berlin in order to claim back his life, while dodging some men, who are hot on his trail and are trying to kill him.  But why? Why Harris?

Traveling to Berlin, always a good site for such pictures, for a biotechnology convention, Dr. Harris awakens after a car accident to discover that his wife (January Jones) no longer recognizes him; in fact, she claims that another man (Aidan Quinn) is her husband.

With the help of the illegal Bosnian taxi driver (the beautiful German actress Diane Kruger) who saved his life, Dr. Harris struggles to prove his identity, and in the process also defeat evil men who have been around since the Cold War.

It’s a subgenre that I have admired ever since I was a very young viewer.  Just watching the characters walk around Berlin brings back fond memories of  many spy films of the 1950s and 1960s, during the “Wall” era.  The whole movie has a Cold War sensibility, as seen in the early James Bond of the 1960s, or Frankenheimer’s 1962 masterpiece, “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Unfortunately, the movie is not deep enough in tackling the various issues of identity, such as self definition versus definition by others, how do we prove our own identity (and existence), and the use of facts and objects versus subjective memories in determining and demonstrating who we are.

French director Jaume Collet-Serra claims to admire (who does not?) and to be influenced by Hitchcockian thrillers that are defined by their mysterious atmosphere, where the audience is as much in the dark as the characters, and you don’t really know where the story is going.  What Collet-Serra refers to, I think, are movies like “North By Northwest” (1959), starring Cary Grant, as a man wrongly assumed to be and treated as Norman Kaplan, a man who doesn’t even exist, or “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), with James Stewart and Doris Day.

For a while, the scenario plays well with its central idea, promising to be a nail-biter, a film in which we don’t even know if Martin Harris is the good guy, or if he’s gone insane, a paranoid who’s imagining the whole plot up.

Foreigners in an unknown territory: Like “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” in the first act, Dr. Harris and his beautiful and seemingly submissive wife arrive in Berlin, nervously going through customs on their way to their hotel, excited by the opportunities they’ll have to sightseeing this great city.

However, rushing to resolve Dr. Harris’ identity crisis, the movie becomes more and more conventional as it goes along.  After the mid-point, the narrative loses credibility and begins to be cluttered by a series of self-explanatory (and unnecessary) flashbacks that try to give some semblance of order to the events leading to Harris’ identity-loss.

Yet there are rewards to be had, if you are patient. In one of the film’s good, eerie and creepy scenes, Dr. Harris meets his wife inside a museum, which exhibits close-ups of different faces.

And almost all of the scenes in which Frank Langella appear are intriguing.  Langella, who seems to enjoy a major screen comeback, can do no wrong, and here he plays a shady, mysterious character named Rodney Cole . The scene in which Cole visits Ernst Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), an ex-Stasi who’s now a private eye, is truly creepy; just watch the joy that Cole shows in fondly touching and nostalgically talking about Jurgen’s Cold War memorabilia.

The gifted Liam Neeson has not had a part that matches his talent for years now. “Taken” was a commercially popular picture but not a particularly good one, and while “Unknown” offers him a slightly better role, it still leaves much to be desired.