Due to geographical and economic constraints, not to mention all the amazing sights to see in our own country -- memo to self: book visit to Grand Canyon now -- Americans don’t border hop as frequently as do our European brethren. Continentals, after all, can zip via train from Paris to London in less than three hours.
We can go anywhere, though, from the comfort of our seat at the multiplex. In fact, audiences have been offered the chance to globetrot via celluloid from the earliest days of silent cinema. Travelogues showing trips through exotic lands were a staple of nickelodeons.
Films of the 1920s, ‘30s and early ‘40s routinely were set outside the U.S. Think “Grand Hotel,” “Shop Around the Corner” and “Casablanca.” Granted, these and similar films were shot on back lots in Hollywood, but stock footage offered establishing shots of the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey or the glittering French Riviera.
By the 1950s, casts and crews frequently headed off to distant points to capture a strong whiff of local color and authenticity. When I was a child and visited Hong Kong in the late ‘60s, our tour guide kept asking my parents, “Did you see ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing?’” My parents had missed the 1955 William Holden-Jennifer Jones romance, but the tour guide sailed blithely on, telling them, “Well, if you had, the scene where he kisses her was shot here,” or, “The ending was here.”
And then there’s Alfred Hitchcock. During his Hollywood years, he loved throwing his American protagonist off-balance by dropping him or her into a strange land. In declining order of merit, see “Notorious,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “Torn Curtain.”
Hitchcock’s formula and style is the one used in “Unknown,” a suspense thriller starring Liam Neeson. The Irish actor is cast as Dr. Martin Harris, an American botanist (there’s no explanation for his still lilting accent) who arrives in Berlin with Liz (January Jones), his attractive wife, for a prestigious scientific conference at the city’s famed five-star Hotel Adlon.
After he suffers a head injury during a taxi accident, Dr. Harris wakes in a hospital to discover he’s missing his passport and wallet. When he returns to the Adlon, his wife stares at him blankly, another man (Aiden Quinn) shows up claiming to be Dr. Harris, and someone with deadly intent begins stalking our hero.
Clearly, something far more nefarious is going on here than just a tweedy scientist attending a fancy-shmancy conference.
The film’s set-up has plenty of smarts and style; it’s the working out and resolution that disappoint. The longer “Unknown” goes on, the wider the plot holes grow and the more defective the interior logic becomes. And it doesn’t help that Jones gives line readings so numbingly flat you wonder that director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Orphan”) didn’t taze her.
What the movie does have, by the beer barrel full, is atmosphere and scenery. It was shot on location in Berlin and offers multiple glimpses of obligatory must-see sites like the Brandenburg Gate and Museum Island. It also ventures through a variety of less familiar neighborhoods, both rich and poor, showing how, two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the divided city has been made over.
For two hours, “Unknown” took me on a splendid scenic tour of Berlin, sans jet lag or having to undergo a prophylactic regimen of vaccinations. If I were to fly there this weekend, per fares on Expedia.com, it would cost $700 from New York or $814 from Los Angeles.
Doesn’t that make a $13 movie ticket seem like a bargain?